The Indian world was upended 500 years ago, when Spanish explorers named and claimed Florida. Today, more than 4,000 Indians struggle to maintain their identity while incorporating the modern world
Cassandra Osceola roasts corn over an oak fire that will be used to make sofkee, a common Indian breakfast drink that can be made from corn, meal, rice or dumplings. Sofkee is served warm and can be sweetened with fruit or honey. Video: Guy Tubbs.
Airboats scatter across the sawgrass like a flock of birds, only to gather again like metal shards to a magnet at the edge of an Indian village deep inside the Everglades.
Once at the tribal grounds, the captain parks near Michael Frank's family camp. Outsiders, mostly white people working for the tribe or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, take samples, and measure water depth and clarity during an annual Miccosukee water quality study.
Frank takes a sip of coffee, looks out over the Everglades and takes a deep breath.
"Our way of life is gone," he says while sitting on the bow of an aluminum airboat, arms folded, chin tucked. "We lived our way in the Everglades, the happy way, the good way. When I was young, you could drink the water. You could hunt and fish, and that was your lifetime."
Indian life was uprooted more than 500 years ago when Spanish explorers claimed and named Florida. Their world was upended again in the mid-1900s when state and federal agencies learned how to efficiently drain South Florida's massive wetlands and subtropical forests.
Indians were living in remote camps in the Everglades and at tourism villages in towns such as Miami and Hollywood when the draining began. The federal government proposed cutting ties with all tribes in 1953 as a way to cut spending in the aftermath of World War II. South Florida Indians responded by forming the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 1957. A second group that refused to join the Seminole reservation incorporated in 1962 as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. A third group, about 100 traditionals, refused to join a tribe and still live an isolated life with no gambling dividends and little government support.
Today, Florida Indians number about 4,400, and most are members of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, living on reservation lands in Tampa, Immokalee, Hollywood, Fort Pierce, Brighton and Clewiston.
To get a better understanding of their lives in the Everglades, The News-Press spent the last eight months traveling through the Indian world, recording voices that have been mostly silent over the past 500 years.
Unlike the past, when children were taught to stay away from Americans and other cultures, Indians today are increasingly communicating with the outside world. It's their last resort to save the Everglades and their way of life, they say.
"It's not going to be the end of the world, just the end of us," Frank says while walking the Miccosukee museum grounds, a slight grin on his otherwise stern face. He opens the door to a building that contains photographs, clothing, tools and art and crafts, some of these things built or used by his clan. Once inside, he says, calmly: "The Earth will be just fine."
The Seminoles were the first tribe to bring extensive gambling to reservation lands in the 1970s. Bingo brought the first big influx of money in the 1980s; millions of dollars poured in each year. By 2004, the tribes were operating electronic slot machines and blackjack tables. The Seminole Tribe reports annual gambling earnings of nearly $2 billion.
The money has helped build schools, houses, fire and police stations and recreation centers.
More: Indian culture
Like trust fund babies in American society, reservation Indians want for little in the material world. Over the past 30 years, gambling dividends have grown from a few hundred dollars a year for reservation members to $100,000 or more.
"A lot of our tribal members have gotten wealthy and they don't want to do the common labor," said Mondo Tiger, a Seminole reservation member and representative for the Big Cypress reservation near Clewiston. "A lot of us have gotten used to the finer things in life. I like to talk tradition, but at the end of the day I'll go home and turn the AC on."
Indian culture was still isolated from the outside world nearly a century ago. The Tamiami Trail didn't open until 1928, bringing tourists to roadside Indian villages to watch them sew, carve dugout canoes and make traditional foods such as sofkee and fry bread.
Indians took advantage of the road as well, traveling to Naples, Fort Myers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale to trade hides, buy food staples and clothing. Clothing changed from the Seminole War era, when men wore dresslike smocks, to pants, neckties, belt buckles and blue jeans.
Everglades National Park opened in 1947 and brought more change. Park rules made it illegal for Indians to collect plants and hunt animals for medicine and food. They could fish under park restrictions but not hunt deer, ibis, alligators or even hogs, an invasive species.
By that point the reservation lands were already polluted, flooded or both, reservation and traditional Indians claim.
The traditions of the Everglades Natives/American Indians explained like fishing, gigging and roasting gar. Video by Guy Tubbs/news-press.com
With parklands off-limits, and reservation lands practically devoid of animals to hunt, Indians were further encouraged to move toward a modern life, to get a job and move away from the villages and their traditional culture.
Their diet changed as well, switching from natural foods like gar fish, ibis and deer to KFC, Taco Bell and McDonald's.
Physical changes can be seen in photo collections from the Florida library system and at displays in tribal museums. Before the 1900s, Indians were smallish in build, muscular and lean. Even elders dressed in little more than loincloths and had the physiques of gymnasts. Today, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other health issues – which Indians say weren't problematic before the 20th century – are prevalent.
Seminole tribe member Frank Billie Jr. says the old way of life kept people fit and that many lived past 100.
"When you're carrying 300 or 400 pieces of wood just to make a house, and about 2,000 or 3,000 fronds that you have to carry on your back, you become a well-oiled machine. Especially the diet they had, everything was natural, no chemicals," he says. "Now we're so used to Popeyes, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, that if you lay it in front of me, give me a fork. I enjoy it. I'm going to eat it up. But it wasn't that way all my life. I didn't hardly eat any sweets until I was twenty-something, because we weren't allowed to eat sweets."
Reservation life even divides clans and families. While some Indians are millionaires, others live in chickee camps, which range in size from a single hut to modern structures and garages.
Frank Billie Jr.'s family is divided among traditional and reservation Natives. Victor Billie is Frank's brother. While they're very close in a family sense and even work together as employees of the reservation, Frank and Victor are opposites.
Frank often wears Miami Heat hats and T-shirts, jeans and a pair of work shoes or boots. Victor wears a traditional, hand-sewn Seminole shirt, several sets of colorful beads, jeans and a pair of purple cowboy boots that he bought at a flea market in Clewiston. He likes the color.
"I can't tell you what they mean," Victor says when asked what the red, yellow, black and white beads draped around his neck mean in a spiritual sense. "I can't go that far."
More: Native words and phrases
Some Indians struggle to find their place in the modern world. The Billie brothers grew up in a traditional village.
But Frank wanted reservation money and joined the Seminole Tribe at the age of 17.
Now 42, he recently resigned from the Seminole Tribe's cultural education department because he no longer feels comfortable sharing Indian history and culture with outsiders.
"There are a lot of things that we keep secret, and the outside world needs to recognize that," Frank Billie Jr. says. "We can talk about some things, but then there's a point where we can't. We're not supposed to go that far. And that's why we're still alive today."
And while many Indians try to keep their lives, beliefs and traditions secret, both tribes host extensive public celebrations.
American Indian Day, held last September at the Miccosukee reservation, is one of the most important public displays of song, dance, alligator wrestling and patchwork clothing – strips of colorful fabric that are sewn together in patterns to make dresses, shirts and coats.
"We'll let the public come and go ahead and share our culture and give them an opportunity to get to know us,'' says Colley Billie, chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. "To get to know that there's more than just a casino out here. We are a group of people. We're just like everybody else. We want to be respected. We want to be recognized; but, at the same time, we also want to be left alone."
These events, along with maintaining museums and libraries on the reservations, are how they try to balance their traditions while accepting parts of the modern world.
Oral stories are used to convey history and typically do not focus on a specific person. No individual is glorified or memorialized for their achievements. Traditionally, when an Indian dies, the memory of that person and his or her name fades with time.
The Land Is Alive
The land is a living history, a reference point around which the Indian world whirs.
Frank knows the exact spot in the swamp where he was born, and uses it as a reference to where other villages and camps are located. He can point to it on a map of tribal lands, which sit between Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park and the sprawling Miami metropolis. He also knows where his mother and father were born, and where they first met and were later married.
His ancestors are buried in the Everglades. Their remains, he says, supply the nutrients and foundation on which trees and plants now grow — plants that are harvested for medicine, food, tools and building supplies. Burying people in a natural way allows their bodies to decompose. Indians often planted fruit or oak trees on top of the actual burial sites, which were typically located on cypress tree islands and near camps. The trees grew on top of the bodies of their ancestors, and the trees, in turn, provided food, fire wood and medicine.
"That's our existence. If we don't have camps and use our land, we lose our lives, our existence," says Frank, part of the last generation of Miccosukees who were born and raised in the Everglades.
LeRoy M. Osceola, seventh-generation son of the famed Seminole Chief Osceola, is one of eight members of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanole Nation of Aboriginal People. Video by Guy Tubbs/news-press.com
A faded Seminole flag flies tattered, hanging, literally, by threads along the Tamiami Trail about 60 miles southeast of Fort Myers.
LeRoy M. Osceola, seventh-generation son of the famed Seminole Chief Osceola, rubs his right hand in a counterclockwise motion against the surface of a hand-carved cypress table, summoning the oral histories of his people.
"You can't see it," he says of the traditional Indian ways. "It's who you are."
The 56-year-old is one of eight members of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation of Aboriginal People, a group of traditional Indians who are not affiliated with the Seminole or Miccosukee tribes. Their struggle is against Americanization. They don't want to be part of modern society, and they see the reservations as extensions of a government that has killed and suppressed their people for centuries.
"When you surrender, you're surrendering everything the Creator gave you. And by joining the reservation, you're accepting this other way of life," he says, "In our way, there are certain healings or medicine or counseling that you can do if people are mischievous, done crimes or hurt their own people. But when you surrender, when you sell out, there's no cure for that."
There are more Florida panthers than traditional Indians, he says, fewer than 100. And while panthers and other wild animals enjoy legal protection, this group of Indians is nearly extinct.
"We want to contact other people and let them know we're still here," he says. "Other Natives (aboriginal people in other countries) know we're here — like South America and Africa. We have to reach out and talk to them and see who wants to help us."
To get a better understanding of their lives in the Everglades, The News-Press spent the last eight months traveling through the Indian world, recording voices that have been mostly silent over the past 500 years.
"When you don't say anything, disease goes over the life," says Bobby C. Billie, 68, also part of the traditional movement. His English is choppy but mostly intelligible. "So you have to come up and try to stop that. Whatever has been done to you, try to heal them. Speak to them so they can heal themselves, to realize what they're doing to the Mother Earth."
Unlike previous generations, LeRoy, Bobby C. and other traditional Indians share their lives and the struggle to retain ancient traditions with outsiders. They must convince non-Indians, they say, to stop polluting water and developing wild lands.
The Reservation Divide
LeRoy's family is split between traditional and reservation Indians. His wife is a member of the Miccosukee Tribe and gets gambling and resort dividends from the tribal corporation, reportedly $100,000 or more per year. But because she's a reservation Indian, LeRoy says, she will go to the Indian equivalent of hell. The leader of four generations of traditional Indians, he hopes to spare his children and future generations the same fate.
"I call it a pawnshop," LeRoy says of reservations. "That's where you go to sell who you are — your kids. Today they sell little kids over there that have no say."
Another goal of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanole Nation of Aboriginal People is to steer Indian children away from the reservations and the federal government and toward a more ancient, spiritual life. LeRoy, Bobby C. and other traditionals speak with reservation Indians. Some of their siblings are even tribal members, but they want to keep future generations from joining.
Apparently that idea is not well-received by the tribes.
"I think we represent what they're trying to leave behind," LeRoy says. "If they acknowledge us, their kids are going to say 'Why is it different?' And they'll have to explain it. Because (reservation life) is just a lifestyle — it's not a thousand-year-old culture. They say we're living in the past, that we don't have anything. When they say that they're talking about money. To us, money is not our way. We can make money to spend and buy things, but it's not our way."
He's full-blooded Miccosukee and qualifies for reservation status, land for a home and gambling dividends, but LeRoy is a holdout. He can't live completely off the land, he says, because pollution from Lake Okeechobee has contaminated the fish and animals. Make no mistake: LeRoy is not an American, he says. He's a Native of this land, part of a people who have endured a 500-year military occupation, he says.
With a lineage that includes chiefs, medicine men and other Indian leaders, LeRoy's life would be different if Europeans hadn't taken over North America. Had their culture and traditions stayed intact fully, LeRoy would likely be what Americans call the chief, though words like "chief," 'tribe" and "war" are offensive to LeRoy and his culture because they are American terms that he says are used in derogatory ways.
Like countless generations before, traditional Indians do not pledge allegiance to the United States or celebrate the Fourth of July, a holiday that, from their perspective, pays homage to outsiders who killed their people and stole their land.
"If we go, everything is going to go, too," LeRoy says.
Indian laws and government structure are already in place, LeRoy says, and could be used again. Example: LeRoy's uncle, John Osceola, at the age of 80, shot a Seminole man in 1938 for breaking Indian laws, LeRoy says.
"In the old days (before guns) they'd use clubs to break their skulls," he says of traditional punishments, which vary according to the crime. "It doesn't have to be death. They cut off your arms, limbs, your tongue."
Rebuilding an Indian nation
Hand-drawn maps from this traditional Indian group show a future with only Indians living in Southwest Florida, from Sarasota to north of Lake Okeechobee and then south to Florida Bay. This land was taken by Americans through violence, they say. Traditional Indians intend to take it back morally, by having Americans and the outside world realize their mistakes, correct those mistakes and then leave the region.
Bobby C. Billie is what’s called a traditional, an independent Indian who shuns money and the material world as much as possible. Video by Guy Tubbs/news-press.com
That plan, if realized, would include removing cities like Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples, Immokalee and Clewiston and replacing them with Indian villages and farms. The goal is to retake South Florida and use the area as a base to take back all the Americas, from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America.
This is a prediction Bobby C. repeats, part of a vision he and other Indians relay: America will destroy itself and Indians will regain control of the entire continent. The downfall will include natural disasters and infrastructure failures.
"It's going to happen naturally, so we're not concerned because, right now, just like the power plants, all those things are not going to work anymore," he says. "The Mother Earth is getting smaller and smaller because of human population. You can see earthquakes, you can see floods, you can see heat, all of those things start happening now. And that's going to keep happening."
Cobalt blues and salmon pinks flash by like a meteor shower during a new moon as a group of middle school students parade through the main hall of the Miccosukee Embassy in Miami.
Dressed in colorful patchwork shirts and dresses, the 18 students are here to say the pledge of allegiance. The pledge isn't to the American flag. It's to the Miccosukee flag and a people who have survived 500 years of oppression.
"All helping one another," as one line says when translated into English.
These children are tribal members, part owners of the vast gambling and resort corporation. They're also the newest generation of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, who number about 600 and live mostly on reservation lands about 100 miles southeast of Fort Myers.
Tribal Dance at a recent American Indian Day at the Miccosukee Resort and Gaming. Video by Guy Tubbs/news-press.com
Once finished, the children scamper off to the banks of the Miami River, the aquatic artery that once connected the Miccosukee to the entire Everglades. There they eat fry bread and sip sodas, talk about the Internet, cellphones and school.
Miccosukee chairman Colley Billie takes the stage, his baritone voice bouncing off the marble floor.
"It was our refuge, it was a place that fed us," Billie says. "And the reason we wound up in the Everglades is because the United States government was unleashed on us to exterminate us. We went into the Florida Everglades as a place of refuge. We will always consider it our home."
The Everglades has changed in the last century, and Indians have changed with it. From a mostly ancient life of hunting, gathering and spiritual ceremonies, modern Indians have mastered the American economic model, building an international casino and resort empire.
The challenge is maintaining traditions and protecting the Everglades from further ecological damage while integrating technology and moving even more into the modern world.
Like any group, they vary in personal beliefs, spiritual convictions and financial status, but all factions The News-Press interviewed over the past eight months have similar goals: Grow their power and influence across the region — economically, environmentally and spiritually.
The tribes are taking control through a gambling and resort empire that brings in billions of dollars of revenue each year (the Seminole Tribe reported $2 billion in revenue in 2012).
The Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida own resorts throughout much of Florida, the United States and in Europe and Asia.
These businesses started as high-stakes bingo in the 1970s, when the federal government gave exclusive gambling rights to Indian tribes. Although casinos were already established in the Miami area, the tribes have since established gambling in Tampa, Immokalee, Hollywood, Dania, Clewiston and Brighton. The businesses bring in billions of dollars of revenue each year, and members reportedly get $100,000 or more in annual dividends for being part of the tribe.
Business ventures include:
The Seminole Tribe is looking to expand its empire. After canceling plans to build a $465 million casino in Atlantic City, the Seminole Tribe is reportedly interested in buying the Revel Casino Hotel, which would also give them an Internet gambling license — another entry into the gambling world.
And there is talk of expanding its Immokalee casino, including a possible Hard Rock hotel nearby.
The money means the tribes can hire attorneys and water management experts to fight or support state or federal water policy changes or any Everglades restoration projects.
"It's not that we want to sue them," says Miccosukee Tribe member Michael Frank about water management agencies and the National Park Service. "It's just that they break their own laws."
The traditional Indians — relatives of tribe Indians who shun reservation life and American politics — are fighting a moral and spiritual battle, citing human rights violations, genocide and centuries-old treaties.
The future of the traditional Indians seems grim. As many have said, they are going extinct. They don't keep count of their people — it's against their cultural ways — but the estimated population is around 100.
"In the old days we were taught to keep out of the white man's way, but there are so many that we have to stand up and fight for ourselves," traditional Indian LeRoy M. Osceola explains.
They also want access to the national park lands — millions of acres Indians used for centuries. Everglades National Park lands were used to gather medicine, building materials and food. Those practices are now illegal because the lands are within a national park. Losing those lands makes living a traditional Indian life even more difficult, some say.
Bobby C. Billie and other Indians say these laws are used to force traditional Indians to live a more modern life. Regardless of their desires to hunt, fish and use medicine in their ancient ways, the outside world has made that life virtually impossible through laws and regulations.
"We have to talk to the government or Big Cypress preserve area to try to get into it to cut the material or go hunt or go fishing like we did when we was younger," says Bobby C., a traditional Indian. "They say 'you can't do that. You have to buy a permit or buy a hunting license.' But we can't (buy a license). It's not our way."
The Next Generation
Most Indian children are part of the Seminole or Miccosukee reservations, although a handful are being raised in traditional villages by non-reservation clans. Most attend reservation school through eighth grade and then attend a public high school.
The modern wealth offers options as children start drawing reservation dividends shortly after birth. College, cars, houses, travel, fine meals, swamp buggies and airboats are financially feasible for reservation teens. Cellphones and iPads are common, too.
Some are preparing for college, others to be future tribal leaders, business owners, clothes designers, cowboys and environmental engineers.
Sandra-Laurie Osceola is focused on maintaining her traditional roots and clan ties. Her son, Standing Bear, 20 months, is one of a dozen or fewer Florida Indians still being raised in a traditional Indian village among non-reservation Indians.
Her future, she says, is with her clan: her close and extended family. Sandra-Laurie's father, LeRoy M. Osceola, is one of the most outspoken traditional Indians and is the head of four generations of traditional Indians living on their own land, not within the reservation borders.
"I get asked all the time, why I don't enroll and get the free money," she says. "For me, it's out of respect for my father, what he has taught us. I can't imagine betraying him like that."
Staff writer, Chad Gillis and News-Press photograher, Andrew West describe the making of "Voices of the Everglades". Guy Tubs
The News-Press staff writer Chad Gillis and photographer Andrew West spent eight months traveling into the worlds of the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians, gaining access to their culture, language and centuries-old struggles to get a glimpse of their world, and to document voices that have mostly been forgotten for centuries. Videographer Guy Tubbs also contributed to this project. Digital production by Juan Buitrago.