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Meet the Native Americans of the Everglades
By Annie Tisdale
Florida has a long and compelling history, even before it was admitted into the Union. One of the chief parts of its history belongs to the Miccosukee Indians. In fact, the name Miccosukee means “the chief’s voice.” We just missed it, but July 26th was the anniversary of the Miccosukee’s international recognition as a sovereign nation by the Republic of Cuba in 1959. In honor of this, let’s take a look at the history of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. Are you ready? I'm ready. GO.
The Miccosukee are primarily from Upper Creek stock, originating from Southern Georgia and Northern Florida. Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the majority of Miccosukee west of the Mississippi, but about 100 Mikasuki-speaking Creek fled into the Florida Everglades, which is called “Kahayatle” in Mikasuki. They joined forces with the Seminoles and other tribes to withstand European occupation in the Indian Wars of the 1800s.
The Miccosukee adapted to their new environment, living in small groups in temporary “hammock-style” camps. Their houses were called “chickees” and were made of wood, plaster, thatched roofs, and perhaps raised on stilts. The clothes they wore changed to fit the environment as well. The men wore breech-cloths and elaborate tattoos. The women wore wrap around skirts made of palmetto fiber. Neither wore shirts, which is understandable because South Florida is so hot! At times I wish I could try it.
When weather did turn a bit cooler, they wore mantles. Of course, the Miccosukee now live in modern houses and wear common clothes like T-shirts, jeans, etc. But, they may still wear moccasins on their feet. Eventually, they would adopt different fashions such as patchwork skirts, tunics, and a myriad of headgear.
They were mainly a matrilocal society, where the mother had prominence in lineage. The mother’s brother was the important male of the household and had the job of disciplining the children and introducing the boys to the men’s group of their clan. Even today, membership in the Miccosukee Tribe is considered to descend from the mother. The uncle still holds a respected place in the family, although fathers have taken over the head of many households.
The Miccosukee Tribe now consists of less than a thousand members, some of which live on any of the four reservations—Tamiami Trail Reservation, Alligator Alley Reservation west of Ft. Lauderdale, and two Krome Avenue reservations (totaling over 100,000 acres of land, plus that which is leased from the State of Florida for fishing, hunting, agriculture, and preserving the traditional Miccosukee way of life).
In the 1950s, members of the Tribe went to Cuba and asked Fidel Castro for international recognition as a sovereign nation. Cuba recognized them on July 26, 1959. A Declaration of Independence was also sent to the UN as well as President Eisenhower, which were written on buckskins! The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians finally received official Federal recognition by the United States in 1962.
In 1974, the Tribe would take over programs previously administered by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) with the desire for more independence and self-sufficiency. The Miccosukee Tribe now operates the Miccosukee Police Department, court system, schools, clinics, and other facilities on the main Tamiami Trail Reservation. They also own and operate many restaurants, gift shops, stores, gas stations, and the big moneymaker, the Miccosukee Resort and Casinos. From the Miccosukee Constitution, a Miccosukee General Council was formed as the main governing body. It consists of a Chairman, Assistant Chairman, Secretary, Lawmaker, and Treasurer, which handle day-to-day business of the Tribe.
The Tribe today has mainly forgotten the ancient tribal traditions of their ancestors. The majority of the Miccosukee may be of various faiths or beliefs, including Christianity (particularly Baptist) and different Native American animist beliefs. Some Miccosukee still participate in the Green Corn Dance, a purification rite of renewal and forgiveness, at the coming of the New Year, but mainly as a celebration without many of the older spiritual aspects. Many of the old-time shamans have passed away leaving without leaving any apprentices.
Today, if you travel to a Miccosukee Indian Village, you would notice that they have modern amenities similar to any American. Indeed, they are from the first Americans and their rich heritage and beautiful arts and crafts bring tourists back year after year. There's an array of gorgeous handcrafted bead work, wood carvings, paintings, and other items.
A visitor can experience the “River of Grass” by air boat and see all the types of animals, fish, birds, and plants that the Everglades has to offer. There are also tours of preserved 100-year-old Indian campsites, Alligator demonstrations with gators 7 to 9 feet long, and the Miccosukee Indian Museum that provides a glimpse at the unique Miccosukee way of life.
So if you’re in town, take a drive out just 15 minutes west of the Florida Turnpike for one of the annual Tribal Festivals, authentic Native American food, and amazing culture.