Miccosukees revere Everglades’ beauty
SHARK VALLEY, Fla.— For any nature lover, the raw beauty of the Florida Everglades is inspiring.
Its rugged landscape of tall green and brown sawgrass amidst the dark, swampy waters is home to mammoth alligators, long-billed waterfowl of many kinds, sharp-eyed hawks, lurking snakes and rare, magnificent panthers.
|The crafts store at the Miccosukee Indian Village (Staff photos).
The word “untamed” comes to mind when taking in the landscape and wildlife. The thought of man claiming this unruly, natural wonder as home seems outrageous.
But, home is exactly what the Everglades is to the Miccosukee Indian Tribe.
And, sweet or not, the Everglades was the tribe’s refuge from mass deportation to reservations in the western United States from Central Florida during the Indian Wars in the 1850s.
Managing to escape soldiers, about 50 Indians escaped to the River of Grass and are the ancestors of the roughly 500 Miccosukee tribe members today.
Separating into small groups, with only one large family to a hammock, or tree island, the Indian tribe formed communities in the Everglades and adapted their way of life to fit their new home.
Now, 150 years later, the Miccosukee Indian Tribe prospers by allowing visitors from around the world to learn about its culture, customs and story of survival. A big sign and a huge white, yellow, and black flag flapping in the gusty wind outside announces that the dark brown wooden edifice, set back from Tamiami Trail by a large parking lot of cars and recreational vehicles, is the Miccosukee Indian Village.
Visitors are permitted to take a self-guide tour of the village, but most prefer to follow the guide and listen to the tribe’s history. Maps and information are available in several languages, including French, German and Italian to accommodate the many international visitors.
“I hit the beach all last week and I’m ready for an educational attraction for my family,” said Cathy Adside of Schenectady, N.Y. “I think a tour of the village is a great idea to learn something about a different culture.”
The tour begins at a family-living chickee, which is a sturdy thatched-roof homes that can hold two families. The Miccosukee would sleep on elevated tables to avoid snakes, alligators and high water.
During the day, the tables were used for work. The families spread mosquito nets to avoid the rampant pests. Today, most Miccosukee live in modern houses, but some prefer to live in the traditional chickees.
|The Miccosukee Casino and Hotel is located several miles east of the reservation.
Visitors also inspected a cooking chickee, where some families still cook over open fires with long cypress logs several times a day. The logs are arranged in the center of the fire to symbolize the circle of life. The first log always points east, and the others are laid in the direction of the circle of life with their ends meeting in the center.
The idea of living in a chickee seems strange to most of the visitors.
“How could [the Miccosukee] live in these chickees?” wide-eyed, 8-year-old Ryan Gesten of Chicago inquired incredulously of his father David.
“They were smart people,” answered David. “Smart and determined to survive.”
A long and narrow canoe is displayed under a chickee. The Miccosukee would carve a canoe out of a single cypress log for about two years before it was complete. Before the motorized airboats now popular in the Glades, these canoes were the sole means of transportation from hammock to hammock through the swamps. The canoes can transport many people, as well as carcasses of alligators and other beasts hunted for food.
“To carve such a long canoe seems so difficult,” said visitor Pietro Esposito of Italy. “That takes some true skill.”
A set of chickees in the middle of the village hold beautiful crafts, baskets and other handiwork created by the native men and women. The men carve arrows, bows, and canoes, while the women craft dolls, jewelry, baskets, handbags and clothing. Quiet and observant tribe members sell souvenirs from the chickees.
Lisa Diaz of Miami asked one of the women if the tribe’s men really helped make some the crafts because she found it so unbelievable that men would care to create crafts. Laughing softly, the middle-aged Miccosukee woman hesitated and replied, “Yes, they really do help us.”
A wooden boardwalk built amidst the thick brown sawgrass allows visitors to take a nature walk and stare out at acres and acres of the River of Grass. The earth below the boardwalk is murky with black water. A couple old wooden huts on the path of the boardwalk serve as lookout towers through the long blades of endless grass.
“Now, this is breathtaking,” said visitor Fabiola Diaz of Miami, emphasizing each word to her sister Lisa as they stared at the scenery through the open windows. “When I see such awesome beauty, I just want to praise God for making it all.”
The boardwalk leads to the village’s museum. The Miccosukee Museum was started in 1983, and it features clothing, paintings and artifacts from the tribe. Visitors can watch a short film on the tribe’s history. One room’s walls are covered with photographs of tribe members across generations. In another room, native attire for men and women are displayed behind glass cases and the tour guide told the tourists of their significance.
The Miccosukee proudly display government documents on the walls that gave them their sovereignty in 1962 and others that declared Native American History Month.
“That’s pretty authentic,” commented Sam Paulsen of St. Augustine. “Everything the tribe has been fighting for centuries is finalized in these documents.”
After touring the museum, the visitors were led to a short alligator wrestling show. A young man named Jeremy grabbed a slowly retreating mid-sized alligator and pulled him up on the platform where the wrestling would take place.
Jeremy showed all of the alligator’s teeth to the audience and performed a couple quick stunts where his chin was used to hold the creature’s mouth open. It was explained that the Miccosukee developed this chin technique for hunting so that their hands could be free to tie the gator up. Now, alligator wrestling is mainly performed for tourists.
The tour ends after the wrestling show, but visitors can still explore on their own. The village has an alligator arena with many of the large reptiles. The beasts lounge in the sun and barely move. Occasionally one will lift its huge body and stumble over another one in the pens. The village features a 1,200 pound, 14-foot gator named Tiny, who is reportedly more than over 100 years old.
“He’s scary,” said young Ryan Levy. “I think I’m going to have nightmares.”
The village entrance has a gift shop, with jewelry, jackets, dresses and other native crafts. Drinks and snacks can also be purchased in the small adjoining convenience store.
If You G0
- Directions: The Miccosukee Indian Village is 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike Extension exit in Miami on Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), just west of Shark Valley.
- Hours: Village, gift shop and convenience store open everyday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Admissions: The tour and alligator show cost $5.
- Parking: Parking is free (handicap and RV spaces available).
- Food: The Miccosukee Restaurant is located in the Village and serves traditional native meals for breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 305-223-8380, ext. 2374.
- Dates: The Indian Arts Festival is held Dec. 26 – Jan. 1. The Everglades Music & Crafts Festival is held the 4th weekend in July.
- Contact: For more information call 305-223-8380 or write to the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, P.O. Box 440021, Tamiami Station, Miami Fla. 33144 or visit http://www.miccosukee.com.