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

Indeed, the tribe's housing lawsuit provides a textbook example of heavy-duty lawyering. Lehtinen and his partners at Lehtinen O'Donnell Cortinas Vargas & Reiner often submit 50-page pleadings to the overworked federal judge, repeatedly tracing the Miccosukees' historical pursuit of a homeland and frequently alluding to past injustices. "In the dishonorable records of our dealings with Indians, there is perhaps no blacker chapter than that relating to the [Miccosukees and] Seminole people," reads one court document, which goes on to detail every meeting and the contents of every letter and conversation between the tribe and the park service since the Indians first requested permission to build the houses in 1992.

Sometimes the rhetoric careens out of control -- as when Lehtinen's partner Juan Vargas contends in a pleading that the Miccosukees have lived in the Everglades for "centuries." Or when Lehtinen says that the idea of privacy fences insults the Miccosukees -- some of whose existing Tamiami Trail houses are screened by cypress planks up to eight feet tall.

If Lehtinen is manipulating Cypress, it's not apparent during a recent visit to the tribe's offices during a Thanksgiving luncheon for employees. The 50-year-old attorney arrives just after noon, and at 3:00 p.m. is still waiting for a few minutes of time with the chairman. Lehtinen squeezes behind a small empty desk in one of the offices and returns clients' phone calls. Around four o'clock a secretary for the chairman finally hails him and he runs to Cypress's office. After only a few minutes, though, he's back, again waiting for Cypress. "These suits are tribally motivated," Lehtinen insists while cooling his heels. "The only reason I'm the tribe's lawyer is because they wanted an environmental lawyer."

In 1988, while still the top federal prosecutor, Lehtinen filed a federal lawsuit accusing the State of Florida of failing to enforce clean-water standards and allowing polluted runoff from farms to flow into the Everglades. The tribe joined the suit as an intervenor. Its settlement in 1991 provided specific deadlines for cleaning the runoff, but in 1994 the Florida Legislature passed the Everglades Forever Act, which extended the clean-up deadlines to 2006. Lehtinen represented the Miccosukees when the tribe sued to enforce the earlier settlement. In his August 1994 memo describing relations with the Miccosukees, Everglades Park Superintendent Ring lists that lawsuit as "a real threat" to the park's restoration efforts and a "legal challenge."

Lehtinen, Stephen Terry, Joette Lorion, wildlife officer F.K. Jones, and construction manager Ron Logan are part of a cadre of white professionals who form a kind of human shield around the Indians, buffering them from the white world. In 1972 the Miccosukees became one of the first Indian tribes in the nation to take over management of their reservation from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But 24 years later most tribal employees are white -- in the police department, the water-quality department, the accounting offices, the bingo hall. Even the tribal historian is white. Wildlife officer F.K. Jones deplores that constellation. "I keep telling the [Miccosukee] kids that I don't want to retire until an Indian takes my place," he says. "But no one wants to do it." (Stephen Tiger, a tribal public relations officer, explains that few Miccosukees are interested in working in white occupations. Lorion explains the situation differently: The tribe has had Western education for only 34 years. Traveling from the reservation to a school in town is time-consuming and expensive. More time is needed, she says, for changes to take place).

Unescorted outsiders are not welcome in the Miccosukee village. Like almost everyone else in South Florida, the residents are concerned about crime. Uninvited strangers can count on being stopped by the tribe's police force. Detention is automatic, and arrest for trespassing likely. My ambassador to the tribe over a period of several weeks has been Lorion, who has been tireless in her public-information campaign to protect the Everglades and its Indians. This past October she led a Washington Post reporter around the reservation, introduced him to the chairman, and briefed him on the housing lawsuit. After William Booth's Post story appeared, Interior Secretary Babbitt met with chairman Billy Cypress. The agreement to allow construction of 30 homes came within a week.

On this day, Lorion is assisting a camera crew from Fox Television, which is gathering information for a report on non-Indians who claim tribal affiliation. A photographer for the New York Times Magazine scampers up to the tribe's reception desk looking for F.K. Jones or any other guide to this wilderness of stone office buildings and concrete-block homes. He finally spots Lorion, sighs, and jogs out to meet her.

I understand his frustration. Three times in the previous two weeks I have visited the reservation expecting to interview one of six Miccosukee tribal members Lorion says have suffered hardships while waiting for a house. One woman had a dentist appointment at the time of a scheduled meeting; another who was supposed to be waiting in her office could not be found.

Finally, late in the afternoon on my third visit, Lorion confesses that she has not pushed hard for the interviews because she wanted to "protect" the Indians, suggesting that any outside contact could be destructive to their culture. "It may hurt people," she explains vaguely in reference to the interview process. Yet three of the six people she suggested I speak to have already been interviewed about their housing needs by the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and CNN. If any damage resulted, no one is saying so. And when I finally do get the chance to interview four Indians, I find that the only taboo topics involve the secret rituals of the Miccosukees' religion. When my questions veer too close to those protected realms, the Indians politely decline to answer.

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