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Leader Helps Tribe Hold Onto Its Culture

MICCOSUKEE INDIAN RESERVATION, FL -- Miccosukee Tribal Chairman Billy Cypress recently referred to his nation as a "frustrated Republican Indian tribe."

The comment, he later said, was merely an attention grabber.

Frustrated? No. Republican? Yes.

The tribe's lean to the right is only one of several anomalies illustrative of the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida Indians. Thirty miles west of Miami, the tribe's home is nestled in the freshwater marshes of the Everglades the home its members retreated to more than a 150 years ago.

It's a history wet with pride.

"We're survivors of the Everglades. We're children of the Everglades," said Cypress, whose tribe has maintained a rich cultural tradition through sheer perseverance.

The tribe's involvement in the multimillion-dollar casino industry may affect the future of gambling in all of Indian Country.

The Miccosukee and Seminole Tribe of Florida Indians recently intervened in a lawsuit filed in April 1999 by Florida and Alabama officials. The suit protests the U.S. Interior Department's proposed mediation role in cases in which tribes fail to negotiate gaming compacts with the state.

In Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe operates a multimillion-dollar Class II gaming casino Class II includes bingo and games such as pull tabs, lotto and card games. They have been unable to negotiate a compact with Florida that would allow them to engage in Class III, or casino-style gaming.

But they have been successful in many other areas. While hundreds of other tribes were obliterated by early French, Spanish and English explorers, the 500-member Miccosukee Tribe has remained culturally intact. Among the native aberrations that make them unique are:

Their refusal to accept money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, fearing it will weaken tribal sovereignty.

Their belief that compulsory education interferes with cultural learning. The tribe has an 18 percent graduation rate.

Their success in holding onto their tribal language; 90 percent of the Miccosukee speak their native tongue.

Their staunch claim of support to the Republican Party.

Sitting inside a $70,000-plus white stretch limousine, Tribal Chairman Billy Cypress reflected on the Miccosukee's search for and comfort in isolation as he is chauffeured about the tribe's Florida reservation, one of three land areas inhabited by members.

"We're loners," he said, as he sat back in a gray upholstered leather seat, dressed in leather sandals, khaki shorts and a navy, button-down shirt imprinted with smoldering cigars. "We're isolated."

That's fine by the father of eight who has been the Miccosukee chairman for the past 12 years, and vice chairman for 14 years before that.

"Life and the world will turn and things will be figured out," he said. "Life is home here in the Everglades. We have to be back here and concentrate on our own areas."

While the tribe has managed to keep its language, culture and traditions intact since the early days of southeastern North American colonization, it's not immune to modern-day comforts. Traditional, thatched-palm huts, or "chickees," dot the yards of well-kept homes.

Cypress points out some of the newer, spacious homes and makes note that the tribe refuses to accept HUD money.

"This is Indian land," he said. "HUD housing has too many strings attached. It would erode our sovereignty." Besides providing 100 percent of all health-care needs, tribal members also receive assistance when they need a home upgrade or a bigger house.

"We just want them to be comfortable," Cypress said. "You can't be happy if you're not comfortable." And you can't comfortably pass on tribal traditions if your time is hampered by full-time work. So when Miccosukee adults turn 55, the tribe takes over their house payments.

"We take the burden off them," said Cypress. "If they had house payments, then they're written off."

The reasons are twofold.

"They were here before when there was nothing, taking care of youngsters when there wasn't any money," he said. "They've had a rough life."

The only caveat is the owner spends his or her time with grandchildren, teaching them traditional ways. After all, Cypress said, the tribe's cultural future rests with its youth. For this reason, the youth aren't pressured to learn the mainstream language.

"English is another person's language, not Indians," said Cypress. "We expect Miccosukee to be the main language. We expect everyone to maintain that.

"It's Miccosukee first. English second."

Tribal language define a tribe's cultural viability to survive, he said.

And if mainstream education interferes with cultural education, it's OK for youth to quit school.

"Why should we punish our kids?" asked Cypress.

Surviving is what the Miccosukee and its sister tribe, the Seminole, know best. They were among the hundreds of tribes killed and among some 3,000 to 5,000 forcibly relocated to other lands, such as Oklahoma's Indian Territory.

Some native peoples like the Miccosukee descendants of the Creek nation moved south from Georgia and Alabama, retreating deep into the Everglades, where they outwitted the U.S. military. It is where they remain today. The center of Miccosukee community life lies in Dade County, Fla., adjacent to the Everglades National Park. It's in this area that the Miccosukee own some 240,000 acres of land, said Cypress, and have the use of 1 million acres of federal land on which to hunt and fish.

Cypress gives the Republican party credit for the Miccosukee's current land base. Republicans, he said, "really believe in property rights. They have protected our reservations."

He later acknowledged the tribe's cordial relationship to Washington's Sen. Slade Gorton, also known as the "Last of the Indian Fighters."

Said Cypress: "We have real good strong ties with the Republican party."

The Miccosukee have entertained former President George Bush and his family. As for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Republican candidate for the presidency, Cypress said, he's "kind of ignorant of Indians."

He went on to give a thumbs-up to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for recognizing three forms of government in the state: Miccosukee, Seminole, and Florida.

"Jeb Bush, I would say, has been a friend of Indian people," he said. "Jeb's brought in new blood to what used to be the good ol' boy network."

In the end, a good politician, Cypress said, is one who works with facts and evidence and makes the right decision based on the criteria. Despite his partisan rhetoric, Cypress said, he would give the nod in upcoming political elections to the person who makes the effort to understand Indian policies.

"One thing people don't understand is Indian people are going to be around forever."

(By Jodi Rave Lee of the Lincoln, NE Journal-Star)