A century ago, the waters of the Everglades stretched from Lake Okeechobee in the north all the way to the tip of the Florida peninsula. Between those two points lay 4,000 square miles of sawgrass, a rich ecosystem home to birds, snakes, alligators and the mighty Florida panther. Hundreds of small hillocks rose just above the water, dotting the marsh. On these tree islands lived the swamp’s oldest human residents.
The Indians of the Everglades spoke a language called Mikasuki. They resided in open air palmetto-thatched huts and traveled by dugout canoe. They fished, hunted for deer and alligator and grew crops on the fertile tree islands. Their society was based on clans, which children inherited from their mothers. It was a traditional life, one their people had led for hundreds of years.
In the 1830s, they faced an existential threat from the United States government, which was determined to push them out of Florida and into territories further west. The Indians fought back in what became known collectively as the Seminole Wars. The Second Seminole War (1835-1842) would prove the longest and most deadly. The U.S. military chased the Indians through the swamp, killing and capturing hundreds. But the Indians, led by the powerful chief Abiaki, refused to leave. By the war’s end, fewer than 400 Indians remained in Florida. But they were unconquered.
The 20th century brought new perils. Settlers flooded into the sunshine state with dreams of easy living and financial opportunity. Eager entrepreneurs and ambitious politicians embarked on a series of attempts to “drain the swamp” — destroying the ancient landscape and with it the Florida Indians’ way of life. But the Indians had always been resourceful, and soon found niches in the new economy. A tourist industry that began with roadside attractions would eventually become a $10.4 billion gaming empire. Meanwhile, the indigenous people left the tree islands, learned English and forgot their native tongues, as tradition struggled to find its place in the modern world.
Today, the Florida Indians are divided into two official tribes. The Seminole, federally recognized in 1957, number 4,000 people living across six reservations. Two-thirds of Seminole tribal members are of Mikasuki linguistic heritage, and one-third of Creek. The Miccosukee Tribe, federally recognized in 1961, is much smaller, counting only 400 members. They mostly live in villages along the Tamiami Trail and descend from Mikasuki-speakers exclusively.
Last November, American Experience traveled to the Everglades to interview members of the Florida tribes. We wanted to learn about their families’ experiences in the Everglades these many years. Along the Tamiami Trail, we met up with Betty Osceola, who told us about playing in the swamp when she was a girl and how her family survived both hurricanes and American soldiers. Further north, we spoke with Carol Cypress, who told us about going to school for the first time and helping to found the world-class Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Daniel Tommie, Carol’s former student, now works at the museum as a demonstrator. He told us about his grandfather’s stories and what it was like to grow up on the Big Cypress Reservation. Daniel’s older brother, Samuel Tommie, was born on a tree island, but moved to the reservation with his mother, Mittie Tommie, when he was five. Both mother and son reflected on how that life change had affected them.
Finally, we traveled up towards Lake Okeechobee to the Brighton Reservation to speak with James Billie, who was chairman of the Seminole Tribe for 27 years over two tenures and ushered in the era of high stakes bingo. We were introduced to many of these people by Patsy West, an ethnohistorian based in Fort Lauderdale, who runs the Seminole and Miccosukee Archive.
Our interviewees helped us understand that the Everglades is not just a place, but a promise made long ago. The land saved their ancestors; now they must save the land. Today the Everglades is less than half of its original size. Only a fraction of its bird population remains, and the water is so polluted that to live off the land would be, as Betty Osceola memorably put it, a slow suicide. Tribal members are some of the swamp’s most formidable environmental activists.
And yet — the birds that remain still sing. And the sawgrass still sways. And the water still flows beneath an endless sky. You don’t have to look very far to see that it is still Kahayutlee, as they say in Mikasuki — “out in the light.”