The Last of the Indian Wars

The fight may be about houses in the Everglades, but the battle is about Miccosukee independence by paula park

Roughly 40 miles west of Miami, the Tamiami Trail breaks its straight-line monotony and angles northwest into the shadowy forests of the Big Cypress National Preserve. Right at that bend, a narrow, two-lane road intersects the Trail and heads south, across a drainage canal and past a dense weave of cocoplum. You'll know you're near that junction when you see the Miccosukee Baptist Church, a forlorn structure of stone and weathered wood that rises from its paved parking lot like a hardwood hammock deep in the sawgrass. The smaller artery, known as Loop Road, soon points due west, where it meets a fragile stand of dwarf cypress trees, their feathery branches crisply reflected in shallow water.

On a cool afternoon just before Thanksgiving, environmental activist Joette Lorion turned her aging Volvo sedan off the Tamiami Trail and headed out Loop Road toward a two-mile stretch of frontage property that, in recent years, has become a battleground, a scene of the latest fight in the highly contentious history of relations between the government of the United States of America and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians.

In an effort to solve a critical housing problem confronting the Miccosukees, tribal leaders sought to build 65 cinder-block homes along a section of Loop Road that looks out on a vast tract of shimmering wetland. But the property's landlord, the National Park Service, delayed the matter for two years before finally saying no. In response the Indians resorted to the weaponry of modern civil warfare -- they hired attorneys and took the government to court, where for two years they have ferociously asserted their right to house their people on land they claim as their homeland.

"The tribe hired me to work on Everglades issues," Lorion says as she navigates the isolated Loop Road. "I didn't know I was going to get involved in the Fourth Indian War." President of the feisty environmental group Friends of the Everglades, the 46-year-old Lorion seems an unlikely soldier in the Miccosukees' fight to develop a portion of the Everglades. Just days before this tour of Loop Road, she had donned her cap as head of Friends of the Everglades and testified against a proposed development project near the southern entrance to the park. The project's plans had been modified in an effort to to placate conservationists by addressing specific environmental concerns. Despite that effort, Lorion would not soften her group's opposition. "People ask me why we don't compromise," she says in recalling her testimony. "Marjory [Stoneman Douglas] always said that when you're right, you don't compromise."

A diminutive brunette whose frenetic energy keeps her always in motion, Lorion spent years sparring with Florida Power & Light over the operation of its Turkey Point nuclear power plant. Since 1990 she has applied that same vigor as a tenacious civic activist to her work with Friends of the Everglades. The Miccosukee Tribe hired her two years ago to organize public support for Everglades protection, but since then she's become absorbed in trying to boost support for the Miccosukees themselves -- specifically, for their fight with the federal government over housing.

Like the Indians who pay her salary out of profits from their bingo operation along Krome Avenue, Lorion is convinced beyond a doubt that the tribe has a right to build homes on Loop Road. When Everglades National Park opened 49 years ago, its boundaries were set all the way to the Tamiami Trail, completely enveloping many of the Miccosukees' camps, which were constructed along a narrow strip of land on the south side of the highway. (The tribe's reservation lands, nearly 75,000 acres, lie about 50 miles west of Fort Lauderdale along Alligator Alley, but for at least 65 years the Indians have actually lived at their present location along the Trail.)

The Miccosukees, who generations ago fiercely resisted the federal government's attempts to ship them off to reservations in the Midwest and who ever since have harbored a profound distrust of the white man's world, extracted from the U.S. government certain concessions at the time the park was created. Among them, Lorion notes, was a special designation given to an area on the south side of Tamiami Trail, 500 feet deep and five miles long, within which the tribe could develop housing and a tribal government center. (The elongated band of property is officially known as the Special Use Permit Area.)

Today 407 tribe members and their children are crowded into approximately 100 houses, sometimes two or three families to a home. Because of the housing shortage, eleven Miccosukee families are forced to live in suburban Dade County, where they pay much more than they would in a home whose costs are subsidized by the tribe.

Lorion asserts that tribal members deserve decent homes and that they should be able to build them anywhere they want within the special use area. She's convinced that the park service would be pleased to have the Indians continue living in their traditional chickees -- open-air cypress decks sheltered by palm-thatched roofs. Now that the Indians are trying to improve their living conditions, she complains, the park service is stalling and demanding conditions that seem arbitrary and unfair. "The park [service] wants the Indians to screen their houses so the tourists can't see them. Can you imagine asking a black community to do that? It's discriminatory," Lorion says with disgust, paraphrasing allegations made in the tribe's lawsuit.

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