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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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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.
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.
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."
Before coming south, Ring managed the Delaware River Gap National Recreation Area. The two assignments are similar because both are bordered by urban areas whose political leaders and communities have a stake in the park. But there are no Indians at the Gap, nor are there thorny environmental problems such as those plaguing the Everglades.
The superintendent speaks only reluctantly about the Miccosukees' housing problem. The matter is in litigation, and Hall, the legal specialist, has encouraged him to keep quiet. But it's clear his teeth are slightly clenched behind his greet-the-public smile when he says, "Situations are better solved directly between people. It was the tribe that chose to be [in litigation]. We are doing our best to fulfill the responsibility we are given in administering the park service in trust for the United States. It's not easy. It's never easy in balancing priorities and use mandates."
The park service asked federal Judge Edward Davis to dismiss the Miccosukees' lawsuit nearly a year after it was filed, claiming the park service had no special responsibility to the tribe and that Ring's decisions were well within his rights as superintendent -- even when he opted not to respond to the Miccosukees' request for housing. "The [Miccosukees'] permit area is not property that is held in trust for the benefit of the tribe. It is property of the United States directed by Congress to be managed by the park," the park's attorney argued.
The Indians' housing pads are thirteen-foot-high mounds of dirt intended to ensure that septic tanks don't empty directly into Everglades waters. Still, Ring and other park officials worry that even a slight change in water quality caused by effluent could be harmful to the vegetation and wildlife; additionally, the housing could block flows of fresh water that the Army Corps of Engineers plans to restore in the area.
But during a hearing in August 1995, a microbiologist hired by the park itself testified that the Miccosukees' proposed dwellings would not harm the water quality south of the construction sites. The Indians' attorney, Juan Vargas, asked Professor Ron Jones from Florida International University what effect current Miccosukee developments had on the sawgrass swamps. Jones answered, "My opinion is that there is no impact on water quality either evidenced by the actual values for the water or by any changes in vegetation itself."
Vargas: "With respect now to specifically adding these  housing [units] and housing pads, will that housing ... have any impact on water quality to the south?"
Jones: "There's no reason to believe it will."
An ecologist for the tribe testified that developments within the national park would have a more damaging effect on the flow of water through the park than would the tribe's new houses. The park service maintains 301 buildings, including a 102-room motel; it also has surfaced 82 miles of roadway. More than one million visitors annually enter the park. "The level of service caused by the construction of the 65 house pads appears to be quite minor in proportion to the overall level of commercial activity that goes on in the park," said Michael Jones, an ecologist for AMS Engineering in Dade County.
The park presented only one witness at that August hearing: Deputy Superintendent Lawrence Belli, who warned that if improperly planned or constructed, the housing development could permanently scar the Everglades.
Attorney Brett Birdsong, representing the government, asked Belli: "If the tribe were to go out there on Loop Road tomorrow and start building house pads before the park has had an opportunity to assess it in the context of a comprehensive land-use plan, can you describe what some of the harm to the park might be?"
Belli: "Well, there could be irreparable harm ... if for some reason the design of that project was found deficient. It would be very difficult to remove the housing pad. But even if you could, removing the fill pad could provide other detriments in terms of release of nutrients or destruction of vegetation."
Judge Davis refused to dismiss the lawsuit, but he also denied a request by the Miccosukees to stop the park from interfering with the housing construction.
In May 1996 the Corps of Engineers decided to issue the Indians' dredge-and-fill permit for all 65 houses. Though the Indians still couldn't build without the park's permission, the decision gave their cause credibility. When the Corps' Col. Terry Rice informed Ring of his decision, he also gave him a stern admonishment: "This housing issue is only symptomatic of what I see as a much larger challenge. The contention, due largely to disputed rights of the Miccosukees in the Special Use Permit Area, that exists between the tribe and the park is very disruptive to our achieving our mutual goals of South Florida ecosystem restoration.... The solution may be as easy as Interior formalizing the SUPA as a permanent home for the Miccosukees and integrating the tribe into the management of the park while the Miccosukees agree to a comprehensive build-out plan."
For the last four years the Miccosukees' tenacious litigation has been headed by Dexter Lehtinen, the former acting U.S. Attorney in Miami. The politically connected Lehtinen had a reputation as a zealous prosecutor with a macho streak, and critics accuse him of manipulating Miccosukee chairman Billy Cypress, accruing ever-higher legal fees.
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.
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.
The Miccosukees' relationship with the bingo hall's original investors, Tamiami Partners Ltd., exploded in 1991 after its first year of operation. In 1992 the tribal court ousted the white partners. The partners sued, and the case is still wending its way through the federal courts.
For all the hostility between Tamiami Partners and the Indians, however, the relationship between Cypress and his white employees seems to be a love fest. Lorion repeatedly quotes the chairman's terse maxims. Stephen Terry merely chuckles after losing nearly a full day's work to a meeting with Cypress. Even the virulent Dexter Lehtinen seems subdued and self-effacing in the chairman's presence -- though he's hardly domineering or imperious. However his acolytes may regard him, it cannot be denied that Cypress has led the tribe to an unprecedented level of prosperity. But even Cypress acknowledges that the profits generated by bingo -- seven million dollars per year by one estimate -- may be short-lived.
Even if bingo's popularity fades, Cypress promises a long life for the tribe. One day, he predicts, the Miccosukees will operate Everglades National Park, or at least control the acreage the park has provided them. "The tribe is going to be here," he says emphatically. "They were here before the park. Do they think that when they created the park, they were supposed to rule over Indians? I don't think so.