Protecting Florida’s Everglades turn local Indigenous nations into loudest environmental activists

4 mins read

Centuries ago, the Miccosukee Nation were forced to migrate to the Everglades. Now, Indigenous environmental activists lead the call to protect it.

For many who reside in South Florida, the freshwater marshland spanning two million acres, serves as a major supplier of water and a natural buffer to prevent hurricane damage. However, the ecological infrastructure continues to rapidly decline. For decades, the Indigenous community is one of the main advocates to speak out on protecting the Everglades and its growing environmental issues.

“Over a seven year period, especially, most in the last four years, we’ve seen an acceleration and a decline of animals,” says Betty Osceola, a cultural guide for the Miccosukee Panther Clan who now works as an environmental activist.

She continues. “And animals in the grand scheme of things were important because that tells you the health of [the Everglades] ecosystem. But also those animals give life to a system.”

Osceola says that the “quality of the water and quantity” are the biggest issues for the Everglades. When it rains, the water is supposed to drain from the Everglades, but the global climate change causes more rainwaters than usual.

“The amount of water we would see in about a three month time, we’ve seen it in three weeks . . . [the water] is going out slower than it’s coming in.”

For over a century, the Seminole and Miccosukee Nation has resided in the Everglades. The region served as a refuge for the tribes that were forcibly displaced by increasing white settlements in the Panhandle and central regions of Florida.

An area that Osceola says she grew up hunting and fishing for food, is now so polluted that it has impacted. “We subsist on this land  . . . in the 70s we were told that we could only fish and drink water [in the Everglades] once a week because of the pollution.”

Betty Osceola, a member of the Miccosukee tribe and Panther clan on an airboat in the Everglades.

Reclaiming the land

Drainage, pollution, urban sprawl and the introduction of invasive plant and animal species has  been so much of an ongoing issue, that Osceola leads the charge in explaining the devastation to tourists. “We explain about the area, the importance of maintaining the Everglades and its importance to everyone in Florida,” says Osceola.

The Tiger Airboat Tours which Osceola is employed with, is a Miccosukee family-owned and operated and aims to educate the public about the Everglades also known as “River of Grass”.

Another local operation is Love the Everglades Movement (LTEM) which is a grassroots organization led by Miccosukee Otter Clan member Houston R. Cypress has a mission to restore the Everglades and utilize education and creative visions to form alliances.

“We like to structure activities poetically, with a sense of music and rhythm. We like to bring in different disciplines. And we definitely work to evoke strong images and feelings,” according to Cypress.

The deterioration of the Everglades has been a detriment to the quality of living for the 8 million residents of South Florida. As it continues to shrink, sea levels continue to rise. Despite the ecological importance, state  government fails to enact enough policies to preserve the region.

Chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, Colley Billie, a vocal force in getting the government to act explains that due to the area being  “mismanaged by governmental agencies over the past 50 years, the water in the Florida Everglades is now heavily polluted.”

Another issue is increasing salt water from rising sea levels and more frequent hurricanes contaminate  freshwater, rendering it undrinkable. Also, drilling by oil companies surround the Everglades. With approval from the the state,  despite concerns of pollution, the Everglades remains vulnerable.

The destruction of the Florida Everglades goes beyond affecting Native nations. As indigenous activists point out, it poses a huge threat to the livelihood of a South Florida that.

While there have been some efforts to restore the region like the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) enacted in 2000, the allowance of oil companies to drill and lack of action to clean the water and build marshes still serves as a hindrance to progress.

A look into the ecological wander of the Everglades

Egrets are one of sixteen species of wading birds in the Florida Everglades.
Mississippi-Alligator or Alligator mississippiensis is an American Alligator found in the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades.
Entrance to the Miccosukee Panther Clan nation.
One of the many boat tours in the Everglades.
Crocodile trainer at an exhibition.
Aerial footage of Lake Okeechobee shows the algae bloom that is one main source of pollution into the Everglades.

Another name for the Everglades is “River of Grass.”
The flag on top of the boat signifies that the tour boat is operated and owned by members of the Miccosukee Panther Clan, a nation of people who migrated in centuries ago to escape encroaching European and US colonial imposition and violence.
Kayaking in the Everglades is one of many tourist attractions that promotes visitors to see the area using environmentally friendly ways.
The wetland marsh of the Everglades holds a delicately balanced ecosystem that took thousands of years to create.
Matthew Gamble is a journalist and illustrator who covers the NYC area.

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