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Last updated: January 15, 2013


Dept of Interior - People, Land and Water
Restoring South Florida's Future
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U.S. Department of the Interior Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary

Gloria T. Mora, Bureau Editor

Living in the Everglades: The Native Americans

Susan D. Jewell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Two hundred years ago, South Florida was a very wild place, flooded with water for most of the year, teeming with wildlife, and nearly devoid of people. The Everglades was twice as large, a land of endless marshes and swamps, inhospitable to all but the savviest humans. The original inhabitants, the Tequesta and Calusa Indians, had already disappeared due to the earlier arrival of the Spanish explorers. White settlers shunned the area, which they considered a wasteland.

During the Seminole Wars in the early and mid-1800s, a small band of Indians was driven hundreds of miles from their homeland to the place the white man didn't want. These Native Americans had escaped forced relocation by the government and wanted to live quietly without disturbance. They were descendants of the Creek Indians, who lived in northern Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. It was the English, upon encountering these natives living along low-lying creeks, who dubbed all the Indians of various Southeastern tribes as Creeks. Later, the band that diverged to south Florida became known as the Seminoles, after a corruption of the Maskoki word "siminoli", which means "free people", since they had never been dominated by the English or Spanish.

Indian community
A Indian community in the Everglades. More Native American news is available in the paper edition of People, Land and Water.
These new immigrants, numbering several hundred, had to adapt to a new way of life. They lived in small family groups on tree islands known as hammocks in the midst of the vast saw grass marshes and wet prairies. They hunted and fished from canoes carved from the rot-resistant bald-cypress trees. They harvested cabbage palm hearts and coontie roots, and, where possible on higher ground, they grew corn which they had brought from their homeland. They built "chickees" (their word for houses) to live in. These were relatively open-sided platforms with thatched roofs that kept them dry and were cooled by the same breezes that kept the insects at bay.

In 1957, under the authority of the Indian Reorganization Act, a majority of Seminoles voted to establish themselves as the Seminole Tribe of Florida with their own government. That year, the Federal Government officially recognized the tribe. Those families that lived along the Tamiami Trail, who spoke a Hichiti language now known as Miccosukee, chose to follow a different path and became the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida in 1962. They currently number about 500 members. Today, some Seminoles speak Hichiti and some speak Muskogee, now known as the Seminole language. These languages are related but mutually unintelligible.

About 2,500 Seminoles currently live on five reservations in south Florida (Big Cypress, Brighton, Holly-wood, Immokalee, and Tampa), as well as trust lands (Ft. Pierce) and several other properties totaling more than 90,000 acres. The 52,160-acre Big Cypress Reservation lies directly north of the Miccosukees' 75,000-acre reservation, and just outside the Everglades Protection Area (the region designated in the 1991 Water Quality Lawsuit Settlement to receive treated water). Directly north of Big Cypress Reservation (and upstream) lies the Everglades Agricultural Area. Canals from the Central and Southern Flood Control Project carry fertilizer- and pesticide-laden farm runoff directly onto the tribes' land.

The Seminoles, too, maintain agricultural practices, which became necessary several decades ago when they sought a way to support themselves on a decreased amount of land. All told, they raise 5,000 cattle, 2,400 acres of citrus, and 1,100 acres of vegetables. Much of the land of the Big Cypress Reservation is bald-cypress swamp, but 500 acres are residential, providing homes for the tribe.

Flood Control Project Impacts on the
The effect of a century of ditching, diking, farming, and development on the Everglades has been devastating. The Everglades is a water-dependent system, and anything that affects the water affects the entire ecosystem and the people who live there. The flow of water has been dramatically altered, and this has been evident for more than half a century. The quality of the water has suffered as well, but this has been more insidious.

The Seminoles' culture depends on healthy natural resources, for fishing, hunting, and leading tours in the Everglades and Big Cypress. To protect their resources, the tribe is developing its own Everglades Initiative. A major component is the Big Cypress Water Conservation Plan, which considers the land uses, hydrology, and cultural issues for that reservation. They are revising their agricultural practices by restructuring drainage ditches to move surface water where needed, storing water on selected lands, rehydrating wetlands by restoring sheet flow, and cleaning their discharged surface flood waters. They will maintain more than 40 percent of their land in native or wetland-related systems.

A scientist measures photosynthesis
A technician measures photosynthesis on tribal land as part of ongoing scientific studies under the Everglades Initiative.
The Department and the National Park Service are assisting the Seminoles in planning and carrying out this water conservation plan, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is assisting by reviewing the plan. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, also aiding with implementation, is sending the plan to Washington, DC for its headquarters approval, expected by the end of August. The Seminole Tribal Council would then give their final approval in September. The tribe has completed studies on indicators of nutrient enrichment in forested wetlands, canal water chemistry, and nutrient enrichment or assimilation. They are ready to launch a number of additional studies, including: the impact of the Big Cypress Water Conservation Plan on the Florida panther; wetland restoration ecology; nutrient dynamics of a natural riparian system; historic changes in hydroperiod as revealed by tree growth; and the occurrence of old growth cypress strands. The tribe also is ready to begin investigations on the effects of regional and local scale drainage, the impact of fire on Big Cypress habitats, bioindicators of effects of agricultural chemicals, and the status of aquatic invertebrates and vertebrates.

In 1997, Tribal Chairman James Billie opened a state-of-the-art museum depicting the Seminoles' history and culture. Visitors must travel into the heart of the Everglades just to get to the Ah-tah-thi-ki Museum. There they can view dioramas with life-sized wax models that are based on living Seminoles, wearing the bright patchwork clothing that has become their trademark. Besides being a valuable educational tool, the museum provides a source of income for the tribe while maintaining their cultural identity. The Seminoles' identity is so closely tied to the land that they believe if the land dies, so will the tribe. With their Everglades Initiative, and those of the surrounding governments, the Seminoles are determined to survive as a proud culture, and not just a museum.

The author wishes to thank Craig Tepper, Director of Water Resources Management for the Seminole Tribe, for his assistance with this article.

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Center for Coastal Geology
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Last updated: 15 January, 2013 @ 12:44 PM (HSH)