The Miccosukee tribe, once part of the Seminole nation, now have a reservation in southern Florida that is encompassed by Everglades National Park. Their roots can be traced back to a tribe in what is now Georgia, but their history, as with the history of nearly every Native American tribe, is one that is complicated and wrought with great struggle and tragedy. Having been displaced from their native and adopted lands time after time between the 18th and 20th centuries, they were greatly dispersed for generations, and only through becoming federally recognized in the 1960’s, did they begin to reform in Florida. They have fought to distinguish themselves from the Seminoles, who were generally more keen to giving in to federal influence, but their language and customs are similar. As I walked down the Tamiami Trail, which, as its name implies, is the main road route connecting Tampa to Miami, I passed by the reservation, and stopped to rest and refuel at a number of Miccosukee-owned businesses. Through brief conversation, I learned that the modern day descendants of the Miccosukee thrive on the tourism that abounds around the National Park. I saw one man, in an outfit that closely resembles that of National Park rangers, selling tickets for an airboat tour to a family whom he assured would be safe and secure from the humongous and carnivorous alligators that they were sure to encounter on the tour. Another woman explained to me in detail how the meat from the “gator nuggets” they sell must come from farmed alligators, because the wild gators in the canals are exposed to high levels of mercury in the water, and therefore not safe to eat. Not to mention, she elaborated, that the wild gators have to actually fight for their food, making their tail muscles too firm for enjoyable consumption. The farm-raised gators just sit around and are intentionally fattened to make their meat more tender, and to increase the surface area of their skin for maximized profit from sales. Every part of the farmed carcasses are used- the heads and claws are preserved in formaldehyde and sold as keepsakes, the belly skin for fashion products, their oil used to grease machine parts. The exploitation of alligators as tourist attractions, fashion commodities, and menu items, is not a new trend. These practices have been going on for generations, and in many ways, reflect a larger ethos in American culture- that our nation’s most unique and vibrant animal species are simply another natural resource with which we can attain and expand our capitalistic goals. Perhaps it was a false pretense of mine to believe that the Miccosukee were not capable of such lust over earth’s precious goods; that their Native American heritage made them invariably and reverently protective of the ecosystem they live in. As I entered the Miccosukee “village”, I wondered what wisdom and perspective I might gain from speaking with the residents there, particularly concerning wildlife conservation.
The parking lot of the “village” has a giant flag, a statue of a man facing off with a monstrous alligator, and a wooden bridge that leads you over a small canal and into the front door of the gift shop. I introduced myself to the woman at the counter, explaining briefly about my adventure and my blog, and asked if there was someone I could speak to about the tribe’s history and the relationship between their people and their land. This, as I told her, would give me some context for the environment I was walking through, and provide me with a way to potentially expose the tribe’s ecological concerns to a broader audience. She told me that for $10 I could join a walking tour of the village and speak to the people that way, but from the unconscious reaction expressed on my face, she recognized that this was not the format I was looking for with this type of dialogue. She told me to wait at the desk for a moment, and went through the gate into the village. She returned with a short and dark haired woman in a worn-out, flat black Burberry coat, who was eating fruit from a bowl. She was middle-aged, but with a young face- not one wrinkle on her caramel skin. As they approached me from across the room, I heard the woman from the front desk remind her that a tour was starting soon, then we were introduced. Her name is Valerie. After giving her my name and a 60-second summary of my adventure and the content of this blog, I explained to her that I was interested in hearing her story, the story of her tribe, and what environmental changes she may have witnessed or been told of over the years. She sat there, seeming perplexed at why a dirty young white dude would have so many questions, or any at all. I started simply, asking about how long she had lived there, what she does for work and for fun, about her family, etc. I learned that she is full-blood Native American, though not full Miccosukee- she moved near this reservation a few years ago from a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and is now selling her beadwork here to support her 5 kids who go to school outside Miami. Her oldest, a boy, is now 16 and her youngest, a girl, is about a year old and the only child with her second and current husband. It is difficult, she explained, to try to live between 3 distinctly separate cultures- that of the Navajo, where she grew up, that of the Miccosukee where she works now, and the “white man’s culture” in which her kids are growing up. As a Native American, and especially as a mom, it is hard to know, at times, what cultural values she would like instill in her children.
This struggle for defining her cultural identity among numerous and diverse backgrounds resonated strongly with me. In my travels, I too have been influenced by a wide array of people from all different religions, regions, and ways of life, only some of which mirror my upbringing as a middle-class white American youth. Through the influence of these interactions, and after much reflection, I have cast away the social identity placed on me at birth, and adopted a set of values that are both humanistic and naturalistic- that of the child to the great Mother Earth. I no longer see myself as the white boy from suburban Maryland, but as a increasingly cultured young man and citizen of the world. Despite the circumstances of my recent life, however, I often feel that I am categorized into the lower, trashier stereotypes of white American life by strangers and passersby- I am the bum, the vagrant, the derelict, sucking the scum and waste off the clean glass and steel of society. Without ever taking the time to speak to me or hear my story, they make the assumption that I am lower than them and should be treated that way. I have often said, in the inevitably redundant conversations with people that learn about my adventures for the first time, that the hardest part of a long trek like this is the mental challenge rather than the physical one. Surely, recognizing for myself that having body odor and few material possessions are not traits that are exclusive to hobos, has been my greatest hurdle. So as we sat there in the gift shop, I felt the greatest empathy, and consciously decided to curtail my expectation of an exposé on the rapid and irreparable ecological damage of the Everglades, for the story of Valerie’s self-identity as a Native American mom, walking the tight rope between tradition and white man’s culture.
As my next question reached the tip of my tongue, the lady from the front desk interrupted to let Valerie know her next tour was about to begin. Dejected, I implored her with my eyes to stay for just a few more minutes in hopes that I may find some resolution to this chance encounter, but it did not register with her- or maybe it did, but there was nothing she could do. I shook her hand and deeply thanked her for our brief interaction, adding that there’s not much I value more in this world than gaining perspective through a glimpse into the life of a stranger, even if it is through a pinhole instead of a panoramic window. She wished me good luck on my adventures, and returned through the gate and into the village. With a sigh, I slung my pack over my shoulders, placed the strap for my guitar around my neck, and turned to go. Just as I reached out to open the door that led outside, the lady from the front desk called out my name- “Jonah! Wait. Valerie said she would like to pay for you to take the tour of the village.”
A smirk came across my face, and I chuckled lightly to myself. “Really?”
“Yes. You can go right through here”, and she gestured with an open hand to where Valerie had entered through the gate. What had changed Valerie’s mind, I wondered. Had she understood my glance after all? Inside the gate, there were many large, open air huts with thatched palm leaf roofs, called chickees (pronounced chi-KEYS), a boardwalk that led into a beautiful Cyprus dome, a booth for the kids to shoot bows and arrows, and two fenced-in pits for the alligators- one about 100 feet long in an oval shape with an island in the center for the gators and snapping turtles to bask in the sun, serving as their main living space; and another in a horseshoe shape with a flat platform in the center and shaded bleachers surrounding the fence that served as the stage for the alligator wrestling show- part of the tour. Each of the chickees served a unique purpose: one was used for cooking, where fried bread and various jams and spreads were served to the tourists, another for selling patchwork, and another, where Valerie was sitting, for selling beadwork. As I let this all sink in, the lady from the front desk came through the gate with a group of about 10, mostly older couples and a family with a few kids, and began the official tour. Rather than join the group, I went straight to Valerie’s beading stand. She greeted me with a simple nod of her head, and a look that let me know immediately that she indeed had read my glance all along.
“Thank you”, I said with a slight bow of my head.
“It’s no problem”, she replied with a friendly smile, though she was looking intently at the circular Arizona Cardinals patch she was working on. I examined her display, noticing how many of the traditional-style patterns in her necklaces, coin purses, and patches, utilized reds, oranges, and yellows, while other designs were simply logos of an NFL team beaded onto a Native American keepsake, like the Denver Broncos deer-skin kids’ moccasins. I complemented her on her beautiful artwork, and showed her the wool hat that I crocheted, the one I wear every night, and told her that my grandmother had influenced me to try my hand at handicrafts. Had she the time, I would have loved to trade my knowledge of craft with her, but I knew the tour group would be coming around soon and wanted to get the most important things out of the way. I told her that I understood entirely what she meant about balancing the influence of different cultures, and though I once thought of myself as fixed, through my birth and upbringing, into the suburban white American majority, I have since opened my eyes to the impertinence, the implicit or unconscious racism, and the inherent and unequal privileges that are omnipresent in that part of our society, and now make a concerted daily effort to free myself from that web of disillusion. So I wanted to know, from her in particular, what wisdom she has passed down to her children that they would have otherwise never been exposed to in their suburban life of white man’s culture. I wanted to know the kinds of things I may have missed out on in my childhood, the kinds of things I can integrate with my cross-cultural values and maybe someday pass on to my children or nieces and nephews.
Again perplexed, as she was in the gift shop after my introduction, she sat there for a moment collecting her thoughts. First, she told me, I was mistaken about her children’s schools and social lives- their neighborhood is very diverse, and her oldest boys have become friends with a few other Native American boys that are in their classes. This brings her great happiness, not because they have best friends of their race, but because these friends also speak their native language. She does not speak English to them at home, and if they do to her, she will sometimes not respond, waiting for them to try again in the language her parents passed down to her. Of all their family traditions, this is most important to her. The long stories she was told around campfires by her grandparents and parents back in Arizona were the same stories she would tell her kids before bed, and their meanings and symbols can only be fully understood in the language in which they were first told. She also told me that in some ways, despite being married to her second husband, she must play the role of a mother and a father to her oldest boys, because they understandably do not see her new husband in a fatherly role yet. She tells them what to look for in girls they are interested in dating, especially good cooking skills, and reminds them that the most honorable way to become a man is to build a house for your family. Her younger kids are still too little for these types of lessons, but they are fascinated by her beadwork and actually made some of the crafts she was selling at her chickee. The first lesson she taught them- one that her youngest daughter will learn soon- is to pray at every sunrise and sunset, to give thanks to God for all life on earth, and to start their day with nature’s alarm clock. She added that the traditional stories she mentioned earlier, are generally told in the winter, when the days end early, and that the summer days don’t leave much time for stories because that’s when most of the year’s work is done. When I asked her what lesson she would teach the world if she could, she said never take anything for granted. Her children are blessed; they have the comforts of heat and A/C, plumbing, internet, name brand clothes, formal education, etc. When she was growing up, she lived in a traditional home made of dried mud with a thatched roof and had no Xbox or even a flushable toilet. I laughed at this, saying how crazy it must seem to her that I choose to live without many of those modern comforts, but she laughed back. No, she understands that this is what makes me happy and knows that a modest lifestyle can lead to great wisdom. I paused after this, knowing what I wanted ask, but taking the time to choose my words with purpose in order to convey their full meaning.
I asked, “Do you think your traditions will be different when they are taught to your grandchildren, considering the differences in culture between the way your kids have grown up and the way you did?” She hesitated, as if she was unsure of how to answer the question, and equally unsure if she should at all. Just then, the tour group made their way to Valerie’s display. “…And this is Valerie. Hi Valerie! She sells some beautiful beadwork, some of which is done in a traditional style on deer-skin. She learned this skill from her grandmother, and is maintaining the tradition by passing it down to her kids, isn’t that right Valerie? Alright, now are there any questions?” The only answer was the sound of camera lenses snapping shut to capture this moment forever in digital high resolution. “Okay! Well, the alligator wrestling show starts in about 5 minutes, so feel free to make your way over there and find a comfortable seat and enjoy the show! Thank you all so much for joining us today!” The whole group migrates in a herd to the shaded bleachers encircling the alligator pit, but I stick around for another moment. Valerie gestures to her left with her head, as her hands are still working diligently, and says “You should take a quick walk on the boardwalk before the show. It’s really beautiful.” Her suggestion was sincere, but I felt that I had crossed a line with my last question, and that the tour group and their snapping camera lenses had reminded her where this line was supposed to be. Ultimately, no matter who I was or what I was doing, she was working, not only as a seller of fine beadwork, but as a representative of the whole Miccosukee nation, to the hoards of mostly white people that come to ooh and ahh at the oddities of what they think is true Native American culture. Now I am in no way implying that the traditional chickees, fried bread, alligator wrestling, etc. is not legitimately part of their culture, but I know that the tour experience in the “village” is not telling the full story, and in that environment, neither could Valerie. Nonetheless, I took another moment to look her right in the eye and thank her from the bottom of my heart, and I wished for God to bless her and family, because from the kindness she had shown me in being so willing to speak so intimately with me, she certainly deserves to be blessed. I strolled down the boardwalk, watching their giant boar bathe himself in the dark green water, and came around a corner to get a front row seat for the alligator wrestling extravaganza.
A charismatic young dreadlocked dude in a colorful patchwork shirt and khaki shorts greeted the small crowd with a warm “Chehuntamo!”, which means hello in the Miccosukee language. He thanked us all for coming and told us that despite the name for the show, he will not be choke-slamming or karate-chopping the gators today, but instead he will show us some of the traditional ways that the Miccosukee and Seminole would catch and restrain alligators in the wild to use for cooking, trading, and for making tools. Throughout the show, he performed many tricks, like holding the alligators jaw up with his chin, which would free up both his hands so he could tie the knot around its jaws, or sticking his hand inside the alligators mouth, which only works if you don’t touch their highly sensitive tongue, because they essentially don’t know your hand is there if they can’t see or feel it. He showed us the crocodile smile, where he jokingly gave a cheesy grin for us before opening the gators mouth to show us its dozens of sharp teeth and immense jaw-clenching power. It was quite entertaining, even though it was sometimes hard for me to watch, thinking of how miserable the gators here must be and how unnatural it all seemed. After the show, the young dreadlocked dude gathered us around a pit of much smaller alligators and asked who would be the first to hold one. No one volunteered right away, so I unflinchingly said I would be glad to do it. As I stepped forward to have the 3 foot-long gator handed to me, he asked,
“wouldn’t you like to give your camera to someone else so they could snap a photo of you?”
Frankly, I didn’t care for the photo as much as I did for the chance to feel what their soft bellies and hard bony spines felt like, but I did end up getting someone else to take the photo. After a few more folks got their photos for sharing with friends and family on Facebook, he pulled out a full box of raw chicken wings and fed the alligators and snapping turtles in the larger pit. Once he had cleaned up, he came to stand beside me and we looked into the pit at one of the largest alligators scaring off the smaller ones from his keep.
“So I hear you’re on a long trek, man”, he says.
“Yeah. Walking the whole east coast from Key West through Maine. But before I get there, I gotta make it through the swamps. Do you go out in the backcountry much?”.
“Yeah. Usually if I’m on foot I’ll follow the roads though. I have been out on the airboat before. Why? Are you worried about the gators?”
“Not worried. Just wanna know what I’m getting into before I go out there”
“Well you’d be lucky to see one as big as this guy.” He points down to the large gator below us. “Most of the wild gators his size have been killed off for their skin or as trophies. The smaller ones will all swim or run away as soon as they hear you though, just don’t step on, or right in front of one if it doesn’t.”
“Solid. Wish me luck dude”
“Good luck man, and be safe out there!”
After much reflection, I have recognized that the wisdom I gained from my short time in the Miccosukee village gave me the insight I was hoping for- that of the ecological pitfalls of a human presence in the Everglades- but also taught me the lessons of a culture whose values resonate with the beliefs I have established over years of wandering and roaming. I learned that the plight of the alligators symbolizes a much greater environmental disaster that has been going on in the Everglades for centuries. Both the gators and the Everglades themselves, when left alone, are naturally massive and truly wild, but both contain great wealth in the resources mankind can extract from them, and we as a species have not hesitated to exploit that. I learned that the Miccosukee, like many Native American tribes, have struggled to maintain their unique cultural identity, and in their case, distinguish themselves both from the Seminoles, and from the influence of white man’s culture, which is especially difficult when they share so much in common with the Seminole, and derive much of their revenue from industries like tourism that pander to a largely white demographic. I also learned, through a much more personal encounter with Valerie, to not take the traditions and values of my family and my community for granted, to keep the stories and ways of life deeply ingrained in my memory for the sake of future generations to benefit from their lessons- but also, that it is wise to keep your mind and your heart open to the influence of new customs and cultures, for a democratic mix of of social and natural beliefs is what defines us as Americans as a whole. I have thousands of miles of hiking left before I reach my journey’s conclusion, but in one short day I progressed more as an individual than I ever would in my sedentary life. So for those of you struggling with your own cultural identity, I have one piece of advice: Dude, trek!