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

Despite such deep distrust, peace between Everglades National Park and the Miccosukees seemed imminent this past October, when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed an agreement allowing the Indians to build 30 houses on specific Loop Road parcels agreed to by the Indians and park officials. (The Miccosukee remain determined to eventually build the other 35 houses along Loop Road.) But neither side surrendered its underlying objectives: Tribe members want to make their own decisions about development within their 330-acre Special Use Permit Area. The Everglades Park superintendent, however, wants to establish that no one -- not even the Miccosukees -- can pursue unauthorized development within the national park. "We believe the tribe will have to be told, in no uncertain terms, that limits have been and continue to be placed on the size of their presence within authorized park boundaries," Park Superintendent Richard Ring wrote in an August 1994 memo to his superiors.

The Loop Road inspection tour doesn't take long, as the 30 home sites, marked by orange construction stakes, lie within a two-mile stretch. Still, the accommodating Lorion turns her Volvo around and passes by the sites once more. There is really very little to see at ground level. Two snail kites arch over the roadway, headed for the sprawling prairies to the south. The boundless sky is the most prominent feature of this landscape. Lorion chats about her eleven-year-old daughter, her work with the Miccosukee (she jokingly calls herself a Miccosukee groupie).

Before returning to the Tamiami Trail, though, Lorion slows down and passes through the ungated opening to a fenced National Park Service residential area. Inside are two wooden houses, elevated on platforms and featuring screened porches. A wide area has been cleared between them and filled with rocks and dirt to form a flat plain. "I just wanted you to see this," Lorion says. "This area isn't wilderness. It's already disturbed." With that she pulls onto the Trail and heads back to the tribal headquarters, a mile and a half east.

For several months she has been accompanying camera crews and newspaper reporters as they arrive to visit the drab, dark-brown tribal buildings. Today's plan involves making arrangements to talk to a half-dozen tribe members who desperately need housing or have recently obtained it after waiting at least three years. But Lorion instead heads directly to the office of Stephen Terry, tribal real estate manager. Reports, books, and piles of papers clutter his L-shaped office, which itself is wedged behind another unkempt and crowded room. Terry's shaggy white hair and silvery mustache give him a somewhat disheveled look that seems to mirror the room.

Since 1985 it has been Terry's job to prepare applications and obtain government permits for tribe members. The Indians must obtain a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers any time they want to replace the rock and dirt fill in their driveways, or build a home or an addition to an existing house. The park service and the Environmental Protection Agency must also approve the applications.

The Miccosukees' last major permit, for the construction of 45 homes, was granted in 1990. Robert Chandler was park superintendent at the time, and when the Indians informed him of their plans to build he encouraged them to proceed. As long as they followed the law, he would not object. Some of those houses are still under construction in the Miccosukees' village, which includes a total of 105 residential and government buildings.

In a Texas drawl, Terry goes on to explain: "As a part of our permit to build the 45 houses, the tribe, the park service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs were to develop a land-use plan for this reservation. We developed a plan and it just died. The planning effort just died."

That death coincided with the arrival of a new Everglades superintendent, Richard Ring. "Since I've been here, there have been four superintendents and four assistant superintendents," Terry observes. "Every time you change a superintendent, things change."

Terry moves to his computer and attempts to find the dates of his meetings with the superintendent in order to provide a detailed account of the tribe's frustrating efforts to secure permission to build all the housing they believe they need. Before he can start, though, the telephone rings. "It's the chairman," he says, referring to Miccosukees chairman Billy Cypress. "I have to go."

He abruptly disappears out the door. Conversation ended. Terry doesn't return before the tribal office closes at 4:00 p.m. But the following week he starts the story again. The tribe launched a self-improvement plan after it gained recognition by the federal government in 1962, though major housing development didn't begin until the Eighties. "What did the tribe do for housing back then? They had 40 or 50 houses that were built using BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]-Home Improvement Program money," Terry relates. "The [annual] BIA-HIP money was enough for a house and a half -- $40,000 in 1983."

According to tribal construction manager Ron Logan, some unscrupulous contractors built about 50 one-story, pressboard houses that began to rot after a few rainy summers. But the Miccosukees' fortunes were changing. In the late Eighties, business began to flourish at a tribe-owned gas station along Alligator Alley to the north. And the Krome Avenue bingo hall opened in 1990. Profits from those enterprises enabled the Indians to launch a rebuilding program in 1990.

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