Buffalo Tiger’s dilemma

Buffalo Tiger’s dilemma – Miccosukee indian tribe

Daniel L. Dustin

The Miccosukees were an undefeated people, having never officially surrendered to the United States government, and they considered themselves a free people.

In 1818, Andrew Jackson, first territorial governor of Florida and future president of the United States, began a campaign of western relocation for ail Native Americans in the territory. Among the tribes targeted for relocation were the Miccosukees, descendants of the Creeks, whose ancestral lands existed in the present-day states of Alabama and Georgia. The Miccosukees, having been driven out of that region decades earlier by British, French, and American colonists, found refuge to the south in what was then Spanish-occupied Florida.

The Miccosukees, along with the Seminoles, several other tribes, and isolated groups of African-American slaves who had escaped from their captors and taken refuge in the upper reaches of Spanish Florida, as well, resisted this newest effort at relocation. A series of battles ensued, and the Miccosukees and their allies retreated farther and farther south until they ultimately ended up scattered throughout southern Florida, including parts of what we know today as the Everglades. There the pursuit gradually died out, and the Miccosukees were left alone to learn the ways of Florida’s first people, the Calusa Indians, who had lived in the “grassy water” for centuries.

The Miccosukees built thatched huts (chi-kees); planted beans, squash, and bananas; fished; and hunted deer, turkey, ibis, and turtles. They developed a subsistence lifestyle in harmony with the ebb and flow of the Everglades’ seasonal rains. The area was forbidding to European Americans, and since the prospect of settling there seemed unlikely, the Miccosukees, who lived on isolated hammocks (small islands) in the deepest recesses of the Everglades, were all but forgotten. They practiced a communal way of living without private property, drawing only what they needed from the surrounding environment to ensure a marginal, yet sustainable, livelihood.

Buffalo Tiger

It was into this Native American culture that Buffalo Tiger was born in the early 1900s. The Miccosukees were an undefeated people, having never officially surrendered to the U.S. government, and they considered themselves free. They distrusted whites and shunned contact with them. Indeed, as a boy, Buffalo Tiger hid in the saw grass and watched white people from a distance. He was 14 before he played with a white boy. Buffalo Tiger learned to value the traditional Miccosukee ways of communal living and respect for the land, and he grew up committed to keeping the old ways intact.

The magnitude of Buffalo Tiger’s challenge became evident in the 1940s and ’50s as environmental impacts stemming from the rapid growth and development of south Florida began to change the face of the Everglades dramatically. Florida’s bicoastal development disrupted the north-south flow of water throughout the region, and the ecosystem began to lose its capacity to sustain inhabitants. The flow of fresh water declined, as did populations of fish and game so vital to the Miccosukee way of life. Like an endangered species, the Miccosukees were gradually flushed from their cover by the destruction of their habitat by outside forces that were beyond their control.

To add insult to injury, when Everglades National Park was established in 1947, the Miccosukees were moved from the park’s two million acres to a vestigial 76,000 acres alongside the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41), which skirts the park’s northern boundary. The impetus for the park grew out of several environmental crises ignited by the white culture’s slipshod development of south Florida, not by the Miccosukee way of life. Yet the Miccosukees were the ones displaced by the park’s creation. As Marjorie Stoneman Douglas observed in her provocative book The Everglades: River Of Grass: “The indians stared at the smoke, the creeping fires, with the stoic faces of fatalism. This was the end of their world.” Soon thereafter, the Miccosukee “traditional” ways were reduced to offering tourists airboat rides, wrestling alligators, and selling arts and crafts.

The False Hope of Tribal Sovereignty

In 1952, Buffalo Tiger became chief of the Miccosukees. He believed his tribe’s survival depended on learning the white people’s ways, so the tribe could organize effectively against them. He traveled the world to see how other Native peoples managed to retain their cultural identity in the face of massive changes. Then, in 1961, the United States government gave the Miccosukees, under Buffalo Tiger’s leadership, control of their own political affairs.

At first, tribal sovereignty seemed like a boon; the Miccosukees would finally have a hand in shaping their own destiny. But what Buffalo Tiger was up against was overwhelming. The forces pressing down on the Everglades were beyond his power to influence: hordes of people migrating to south Florida to live, work, and play; agricultural, industrial, and residential development draining away the precious flow of water that brought life to the Everglades; and a general lack of concern in the white culture for the plight of a few hundred Miccosukees living along the corridor between Miami and Naples. Tribal sovereignty, Buffalo Tiger soon realized, had the ring of a hollow victory. How could he hope to keep the Miccosukee ways alive in the wake of south Florida’s burgeoning growth and development?

Cultural Heritage Tourism

Educating others about Miccosukee customs, traditions, and beliefs and, in so doing, helping to preserve them, seemed like the best bet. Cultural heritage tourism offered hope. Yet it has proved to be an uphill battle. Most of the passengers on Buffalo Tiger’s airboat rides are foreigners. Germans, in particular, seek him out because they’ve read about the Miccosukees in their school textbooks. South Floridians, on the other hand, who live closest to the Everglades and who stand to benefit most from understanding the Miccosukee way of life, seem least interested. Moreover, with increasing numbers of non-Native American airboat tour guides along the Tamiami Trail, concerns have been raised about the authenticity of the portrayals of Miccosukee culture. If visitors get only a caricature of Miccosukee life, a “snapshot” that does an injustice to the whole story, then Buffalo Tiger’s dream of educating others about his cultural heritage goes unfulfilled.

Complicating the situation is the newly established Miccosukee Casino, which is set on the eastern edge of the reservation where the Everglades borders the western edge of Miami.

The Miccosukee Casino

Gambling, made possible by the sovereignty of the Miccosukee Tribe, draws locals away from the cultural heritage lessons Buffalo Tiger would like to teach them. This is somewhat ironic, as Buffalo Tiger bears some responsibility for the casino’s existence. He was instrumental in establishing bingo on the reservation several years ago as an attempt to generate revenue to assist the tribe in carrying out its public works projects. Although the subsequent expansion from bingo into a full-fledged casino came after his 33 years as tribal chief, Buffalo Tiger still feels partially responsible.

Gambling on the Miccosukee Reservation, to paraphrase Patricia Stokowski’s description of the effects of gambling on two small communities located in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, has led to both riches and regrets. Unlike some other gambling operations, proceeds from the Miccosukee Casino are distributed among all tribe members, including children. Miccosukee families receive substantial incomes without having to work, and some families allow their children access to large sums of money without necessarily knowing how to handle it. This has led to problems with drugs and alcohol. Furthermore, the money enables the Miccosukees to leave the reservation, substitute ranch homes for chi-kees, and assimilate into the mainstream of south Florida culture.

So, while the restricted flow of water into the Everglades causes one set of problems for the Miccosukees, the unrestricted flow of money causes another. The casino may be viewed as economically positive for the Miccosukees, but the easy money makes it even harder to keep traditional Miccosukee ways alive. Buffalo Tiger had hoped the proceeds from gambling would be used in a communal way to thwart the advance of Western civilization; yet the opposite is occurring. More and more Miccosukees, convinced that their newly acquired wealth has set them free, are opting for Western ways. In fact, some tribe members refer to the casino enthusiastically as the “second coming of the buffalo.” All the while, Buffalo Tiger agonizes over whether the Miccosukees have unwittingly struck a Faustian bargain.

Buffalo Tiger’s Dilemma

This is Buffalo Tiger’s plight. The kind of tourism he wants to promote, cultural heritage tourism, doesn’t pay much; it is essentially an educational endeavor. It requires a commitment of time and patience on the part of the visitor as well as a genuine interest in understanding the complexities of a sophisticated Native American culture. This kind of tourism is slow to take, especially since, as Buffalo Tiger admits, “Miccosukees don’t like to talk much.” Gambling, on the other hand, is extremely profitable to the Miccosukee Tribe. There is a glitz to gambling for both gamblers and those who make fistfuls of money from gamblers. It is hard to argue against it in economic terms. Yet culturally, gambling may prove lethal to the Miccosukees.

Buffalo Tiger still clings to the hope that the Miccosukees will use some of the proceeds from their gambling operations to revitalize their tribal customs and beliefs and resurrect their tribal identity. But he also fears that the power of money from gambling will not benefit the tribe as a whole, that it will only make it easier for individual tribe members to abandon, once and for all, the old ways.

Buffalo Tiger’s story personifies one of tourism’s great struggles. The tourism that is most profitable is not necessarily the most authentic or educationally worthwhile. Catering to this kind of tourism, in the hopes of generating sufficient revenue to make more authentic and educationally worthwhile tourism possible, however noble the intent, necessitates a compromise of ideals. Money changes everything. In this regard, we would do well to remember that Buffalo Tiger’s dilemma is not his alone.

The authors would like to thank Buffalo Tiger and his son, Lee Tiger, for their contributions to this article.

COPYRIGHT 1998 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group