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

The tribe's business council, which oversees all its investments, told members crowded into the small houses that they might soon be able to have their own homes. Some families, Candice Poole's among them, had waited more than a decade. Poole had submitted her application in 1982. For a time she and her three children had to live in a chickee at her grandfather's camp. When Hurricane Andrew destroyed the chickee, she moved into a house with her mother, brother, sister, and seven children. She finally received a new house in 1994.

The Indians still had 49 families on a waiting list -- eleven of them living outside the village -- when Stephen Terry sent Ring a memo in July 1992 describing the Miccosukees' urgent need for housing. The tribe found out eight months later, in March 1993, that the park would not approve a construction permit before the Indians submitted a land-use plan. When the tribe submitted the plan, the park service found it unacceptable but failed to tell the Indians what to do to improve it.

Finally, in March 1994, the frustrated tribe sent the park service a letter. The Indians would submit their application for a dredge-and-fill permit to the Army Corps of Engineers the following month -- two full years after the first attempts at communicating. Silence from the park service would be construed to mean tacit acceptance of the permit application. "That's when the park service finally woke up and wrote to the Corps of Engineers," Terry recalls. "They said, 'We are the landlord and you can't approve an application without our consent.' We had come with an environmental assessment. Everything was complete. We had crossed our T's and dotted our I's."

The Corps of Engineers informed Terry in October 1994 that it would not act on the Miccosukees' permit application because the park service opposed it. (Ring did not inform the tribe of his opposition -- he informed the corps only, according to the tribe's documents.) That same month the tribe sued the park service, the Department of the Interior, the Corps of Engineers, and Richard Ring in his capacity as superintendent of Everglades National Park. Among other things, the lawsuit makes the following allegation: "The defendants' complete abdication of their fiduciary duties and trust obligations toward the tribe, and their deliberate sabotage of the tribe's efforts, has resulted in irreparable harm to the tribe in that its members are presently without sufficient adequate housing and the tribe is unable to fulfill expected housing needs."

It wasn't until after the lawsuit was filed that the Indians learned what the park service wanted -- that the majority of homes be constructed adjacent to the ones already existing south and the west of the tribe's government center. But the Indians were adamant about Loop Road, which is part of the original special permit area. "That's the next logical place to build," Terry says. "In order for us to build back here, we would have to put in a whole other layer of infrastructure. We have to build a road, new power lines. On Loop Road, we already have a road, the power lines are there. The difference is about three million dollars."

An hour's drive south from the Indian village, the Everglades National Park headquarters seems the antithesis of the crowded Miccosukee administration offices. After Hurricane Andrew destroyed the visitors center, a wooden prefabricated house was used on a temporary basis. But now a spacious, new, high-tech center is open, its green pitched roof modeled after a Miccosukee chickee. Immediately north of the visitors center, inside the administrative offices, a uniformed woman sits at a reception island. There seems to be a lot of open space. Superintendent Richard Ring's own office is about half the size of one of the pressboard houses the BIA financed for the Miccosukees.

Two officials, public information officer Rick Cook and legal specialist Elaine Hall, flank Ring in his spit-shined office as he gives an account of several Everglades restoration projects. His appearance is as militarily perfect as his office: light auburn hair neatly combed, uniform perfectly pressed. The chief rattles off dollars spent on park projects, as well as their scientific acronyms and explanations. It's obvious he shepherds each project with meticulous care. "Two billion dollars worth of capital projects are under way," Ring boasts. "The payout is in the next fifteen years."

According to Joe Browder, a Friends of the Everglades board member, after a period of unpopularity, Everglades National Park in the last few years has moved onto the list of plum assignments for park service superintendents and is now attracting better candidates.

In Browder's opinion, however, few superintendents have dealt wisely with the Indians. By way of explanation, he notes that the park service was created to manage and protect rare and treasured lands for public enjoyment; the protocol and training of superintendents provides no assistance in understanding indigenous cultures. Indeed, the Everglades is not the only park with an Indian war on its hands. In California the park service kicked the Timbisha Shoshone off their native lands in Death Valley National Park; in Hawaii a native family is fighting eviction from the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park -- which is devoted to the history of native people. "We don't have explicit policies relating to Indian people living in national parks," confirms Patricia Parker, American Indian liaison for the Washington, D.C., office of the park service. "Generally, in our history, they don't. When parks were created, the policies of the past were to basically remove the population. That's caused hard feelings -- terribly deep in communities nationwide."

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