This Is Not the USA

He thought he was just doing his job and playing by the rules. Then he learned that the rules are very different in the sovereign nation of the Miccosukee.

This form of protection extends to popular Indian attractions such as the bingo hall operated by the Miccosukee at the northwest corner of Krome Avenue and the Tamiami Trail. Some courts have found that tribes are immune from liability even if a bingo customer is injured due to clear negligence on the part of bingo operators.

"The Indians can do as they please," asserts Miami attorney Sanford Bohrer, who represents the bingo hall's former managers in a federal lawsuit they filed after being dismissed by the Miccosukee. (Bohrer also represents New Times in matters concerning defamation and the First Amendment.) "They invite unsuspecting non-Indians onto the reservation without telling them they have no rights on the reservation. The only rights you have are the rights they want to give you in your particular situation."

For the Miccosukee such distance from some aspects of American law hasn't been a luxury, or even a privilege; it has been a matter of survival, a right granted them because, simply put, they were here first.

Settlements of Miccosukee and Seminole Indians in the Tallahassee and Gainesville areas can be dated to the late 1700s, when they peacefully raised crops and cattle. However, skirmishes erupted as white settlers began crowding into the Southern states and encroaching on Indian land. The confrontations escalated, and in 1814 Gen. Andrew Jackson began a bloody campaign against the tribes, forcing them to retreat further down the Florida peninsula.

Tensions between whites and Indians continued as the tribes became sanctuaries for runaway slaves. The answer seemed obvious: Get the Indians out of Florida and remove the incentive for slaves who wanted to flee. In 1832 Jackson, who by then was president of the United States, tricked the Indians into signing a treaty under which they would be resettled to what is today Oklahoma. Thousands of them were carted off, but a large number of Seminoles and Miccosukees rebelled, prompting the Second Seminole War, from 1835 to 1842. Eventually the most stubborn bands of Seminoles and Miccosukees fled even further south and hid deep in the Everglades.

A small band of less than 100 Miccosukees were among those who escaped, and it is their descendants who now comprise the 400 members of the current tribe. In 1928 the opening of State Road 41 (the Tamiami Trail) once again brought Indians and whites into conflict over encroachment and pollution of the land. Thirty years later, another fight developed when Miccosukee leaders refused government pressure to join with the Seminole tribes. In an effort to draw attention to their demands for tribal recognition, a delegation of Miccosukees traveled to Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. Two years later the Miccosukees formally incorporated and were officially recognized by the government as a distinct tribe.

The portion of their reservation most familiar to tourists is a five-mile strip along the Tamiami Trail. It is 500 feet wide A 250 feet on either side of the Trail A and abuts Everglades National Park, nineteen miles west of Krome Avenue. A much larger tract of Miccosukee land stretches south from Alligator Alley (State Road 84) and adjoins the Seminole reservation.

But contemporary Miccosukee Indians don't need history books to understand the legacy of abuse perpetrated by the federal government. The degradation of their Everglades homelands A through canal drainage, commercial and residential development, road construction, and agricultural pollution A is a constant reminder of government-sanctioned intrusion, and it has served to foster a fierce sense of independence. "That's why we are different from the United States," says tribal chairman Billy Cypress. "This is not the United States. People don't understand that and they never will."

Counters Negron: "I don't remember getting my passport stamped, or passing a sign saying I was leaving my civil rights behind when I entered the reservation." The incident that led to his problems, he says, has nothing to do with historical animosities or cultural misconceptions. Negron believes he is merely the victim of a tribal police force zealously interested in pleasing its Miccosukee bosses by chasing off pesky repo men.

If the Miccosukee police force is loyal and responsive to a fault, the tribe's principal lawyer shares its sense of dogged independence. Dexter Lehtinen, the pugnacious former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, has represented the tribe's legal interests for the past three years. In tribal chairman Billy Cypress Lehtinen has found a kindred spirit whose distrust of the federal government runs deep. (Lehtinen refused comment for this story.) "I think [Lehtinen] likes representing Billy Cypress because there aren't any rules except Billy's," says attorney Sanford Bohrer. "As long as he can get along with Billy, he's doing fine."

Adds attorney Kenneth Weisman: "Dexter Lehtinen, Billy Cypress, and the Miccosukee police force are operating their own fiefdom out there. It is their own kingdom, and they believe they are above the law."

But the law -- at least as applied by tribal police officers -- was exactly what William Negron and Dinavon Bythwood were forced to contend with. Following their arrest, the two men were formally charged by the State Attorney's Office, which prosecutes criminal cases originating on the reservation. After reviewing the various charges brought by tribal police, prosecutors dropped all but armed trespassing, a third-degree felony.

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