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

On the day scheduled for the interview session, Lorion and I sit on metal folding chairs at one side of a card table inside a small auditorium at tribal headquarters. The four Indians walk in one by one. Candice Poole, a 29-year-old receptionist at the government center, arrives alone and asks a relative to join her in order to "give her support." They both sit across the table. The relative, a female cousin, is clearly relieved when Poole's husband arrives and she's discharged of her duty. Though she says she's frightened, Candice Poole speaks easily, a seemingly experienced orator. Pausing only occasionally to replace the comb in her waist-length brown hair, Poole tells a poignant story of her struggle to give her children the best home she could -- even when that meant living in a chickee and exposing them to cold weather that caused more than the usual childhood sicknesses.

Theresa Willie, who works at the Miccosukee day-care center, speaks more uncertainly but with candor. She and her children have had to live in many houses since her divorce in 1989 -- some of them good, some not so good. For a while she lived in the village, but Hurricane Andrew damaged her house and it later became infested with rats. Now living in a Kendall apartment, the 45-year-old Willie wants her children to be within walking distance of their older relatives in order that they might learn traditional values and the old stories.

Roy Poole's mother, Virginia Poole, arrives regally dressed in a pink shirt embroidered with her clan's insignia and a traditional Miccosukee skirt of patchwork designs inlayed in lavender, pink, and green cotton. As a village elder, Poole is supposed to pass along the tribal history. Living in a chickee has never been a hardship for her, and she still prefers it. She fondly recalls a childhood of waking to the sound of birds and diving into canals to freshen up in the morning. But those days, she acknowledges sadly, are gone forever. She understands that without the comforts of modern housing, many young families will leave the reservation and threaten the tribe's continued existence. "People have pretty much accepted that this is the way we have to go," she says. "They understand that we need to be involved in the non-Indian world."

That involvement doesn't come easy for shy Miccosukees, who speak their own language on the reservation, not English. Though all of the individuals know they are participating in an interview, each continually looks at Lorion, as if conversing with her, not me. I am too much the stranger, and Miccosukees can never know how they'll be treated by an unknown white person.

The Indians learned to mistrust whites in the Nineteenth Century, after Gen. Andrew Jackson waged one of the costliest wars in U.S. history to round up Indians in Florida and cart them off to reservations (see sidebar, page 31). At the end of that century the Miccosukees promised death to anyone who so much as spoke to whites. In the early Twentieth Century, leaders who understood and spoke a little English feigned ignorance of the language when strangers approached. Even when selling skirts, trinkets, and other souvenirs to tourists today, tribe members have managed to erect a psychological barrier between themselves and outsiders. "We had big tall walls up around our camp," recalls Candice Poole of the group of chickees she shared with her mother, sisters, some uncles, and her grandfather, Jimmy Tiger. "He said, 'Don't go outside, there might be white people out there.' That was my whole world -- inside those big old walls. It used to be a thrill to peek out and see whites out there."

Also on this day I'm expecting to speak with Billy Cypress. He's scheduled to fly out of town and this will likely be my last opportunity. Coincidentally, I run into him as he heads for the restroom and he promises that we'll talk, if only for a few minutes. An hour passes.

Convinced he won't break his promise, I wait. Eventually, glancing out a window, I see him and scuttle out the front door of the administration center to meet him. An unimposing 46-year-old, Cypress stands about five feet ten inches tall. His straight black hair is streaked with highlights of silver. He's begun to fill out around the waist, like a middle-aged white man who has skipped the gym. (Traditional Miccosukee diets included little fat, and the lifestyle provided plenty of outdoor exercise.) Dressed in jeans, a blue plaid shirt, and a denim vest, Chairman Cypress is hyperventilating ever so slightly from his busy schedule. He's got only a few minutes, he tells me, before he must return to a meeting with tribe members. His answers to my questions are brief and delivered with a well-rehearsed cadence: "The state wants Indian people on welfare. They don't want to see people get ahead and take care of themselves. They don't want that. It's not easy to put people down if they are self-sufficient."

The Miccosukees elected Cypress their chairman in 1987, the same year they decided to find investors and open a bingo hall. He had steadily worked his way up to tribe's top position, starting as an assistant to former chairman Buffalo Tiger. Cypress attended Barry University for four semesters, taking business courses. He has a reputation for micromanaging the bingo operation.

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