|August 12, 2013|
Miccosukee struggle to save Everglades -- and a way of life.
|When his 4-year-old daughter asked why he was traveling to Washington earlier this month, Miccosukee Chairman Colley Billie told her he needed help to save their tribal homeland and preserve what remains of their traditional way of life.|
He said he wanted her to see wading birds, which once blanketed the heart of the Everglades but have dwindled to just a few, and to swim in clean waters now choked with pollution.
The Everglades are dying," Billie later told a half-dozen Florida members of Congress. "The tree islands are disappearing. We cannot grow corn. We cannot teach our young the traditional way of life. Now even the animals are disappearing."
The Miccosukee -- a proud, private and unconquered people who fled into the Everglades nearly two centuries ago to escape forced removal to the West -- say they have nowhere else to go and must keep fighting to save their land from pollution that flows from surrounding farmland and encroaching development.
With few exceptions, they are the only full-time residents of the Everglades, the only ones living in the midst of a state and federal restoration project intended to clean the water and restore a natural flow from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.
The larger Seminole Tribe, which is more scattered across Florida, has been deeply engaged in restoration plans. "The Tribe is okay with the overall direction of the project," said Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner.
But the Miccosukee have long scorned parts of the project while trying to control waters that flow through their reservations.
Resplendent in brightly colored shirts and belts, Billie and several other tribal members came to Washington earlier this month and implored members of the Congressional Everglades Caucus to give them a seat at the table. In particular, they're concerned about dangerous levels of fertilizer pollution that pass through their reservation straddling I-75 -- known as "Alligator Alley" -- in southwest Broward County before draining into Everglades National Park.
They are determined not to budge.
"That is how we survived. We were taught to never, ever leave the Everglades. If you leave the Everglades, you lose your culture, you lose your language, you lose your way of life," tribal member Michael Frank said.
"That's part of my ancestors out there. When you see a big old tree dying, that's grandfather dying. That's grandmother dying. That's part of me that's dying out there."
The Miccosukee were once part of the Seminole Tribe, which descended from the Creek people who lived in what is now Alabama and Georgia. Their ancestors spread into Florida in the 17th and 18th centuries to expand hunting grounds, flee conflicts with other tribes and evade white settlers and their armies.
The Seminoles kept moving south, forming alliances with runaway slaves to fight federal troops in the 1800s during a long struggle over control of the Florida frontier. Thousands were forced to move West as part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
But a band of Mikasuki-speaking Seminoles retreated into the Everglades, where they fished and hunted and built villages isolated by a daunting marsh. To this day, they take pride in being an unconquered people who maintained a distinctive language and way of life.
In the late 1950s, they split from the Seminole Tribe to form the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, which was formally recognized by the federal government in 1962.
The 650-member tribe, which runs the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming casino on the western edge of Miami, is battling the IRS over accusations that it failed to report and withhold taxes from the distribution of gambling profits.
But on their mission to Washington, tribal leaders focused on environmental concerns. Their most pressing concern is the L-28 Interceptor Canal that brings water laden with phosphorous levels 10 times greater than what is considered healthy.
The state and federal restoration plan calls for storage areas that will release water when needed and filter it through underwater plants to remove fertilizer pollutants. But the Miccosukee say these plans are more than 10 years away and may not improve water quality enough to save native plants and wildlife.
Caucus members and an Interior Department official acknowledged this week that the canal problem should be addressed.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, inserted language in a spending bill that directs the Interior Department to work with the Miccosukee to find a solution. The Interior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the department already is looking for one.
"Nobody knows this area better than the Miccosukee, who live off the land," Diaz-Balart said. "They obviously now have other revenue sources, but forever that's how they've eaten, that's how they've survived.
"Ignoring the concerns of the Miccosukee is something we would do at our own peril, and at the peril of Everglades National Park."