Born in a small village in the Everglades in 1920, Buffalo Tiger grew up immersed in the traditional customs and language of the Miccosukees. As the modern world encroached on the Miccosukees and the Everglades shrank around them, Buffalo Tiger became an energetic and outspoken leader of the community. As the first tribal chairman of the Miccosukees, he oversaw the adoption of a tribal constitution and worked diligently to implement reforms and to protect the community’s cultural and natural resources. In the 1970s the Miccosukees became the first modern tribe to take complete control of their affairs and federal budget.
Buffalo Tiger’s penetrating observations about his people and the world around them, combined with the skilled scholarship of historian Harry A. Kersey Jr., illuminate a memorable life, a tireless leader, and an Indian community still proud to call the “River of Grass” its home.
About the Author
Harry A. Kersey Jr. is a professor of history at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of several books, including An Assumption of Sovereignty: Social and Political Transformation among the Florida Seminoles, 1953–1979 (Nebraska 1996) and The Florida Seminoles and the New Deal, 1933–1942.
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BUFFALO TIGERA Life in the Everglades
By BUFFALO TIGER and Harry A. Kersey Jr.
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2002 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Early in the twentieth century the lifestyle of Miccosukee Indians living in the Florida Everglades had changed very little since the late 1800s. They maintained their chickee camps and small gardens on widely scattered tree islands, or hammocks. They practiced a gender-based division of labor. Indian men fished, hunted, and trapped wildlife for food and sold the hides to white traders in nearby towns. Miccosukee women were in charge of the camp, where they tended to the cooking, sewing, child rearing, and myriad other everyday chores. The Miccosukees strictly observed the matrilineal clan system. They were also matrilocal: women of the same clan lived with their families in a camp headed by the senior clan matron. The Green Corn Dance remained the central religious ritual of the people, and the white man's religions had made no inroads. Except for occasional visits to Miami, the Miccosukees had limited interaction with the outside world until the Tamiami Trail opened in the 1920s. It was in such a camp setting, surrounded by his relatives, that young Buffalo Tiger was introduced to the culture and beliefs of his people. In this chapter he describes what it was like to grow up Miccosukee.
People call me Buffalo Tiger. My birthday is March 6, 1920. I was born in a little village; we called it Grandfather's village, and we lived there a long time. We called it Grandfather's village, but it was really Grandmother's village. In our customs we have to believe the wife is always the boss over the camps and families-so the grandmother, she is the big boss! My grandmother, we called her Posi, and that's all we ever called her because we did not know and did not say the real name. It is a custom of Miccosukees not to call elder people by their names. So we called her Posi and she was boss of the village.
My mother was of the same clan, the Bird clan. I can call her by her English name, Sally Tiger.
My grandfather was of the Big City clan; sometimes people call them the Frogs. His name was Charlie Willie. My grandmother and grandfather, they were pretty old.
My daddy was from the Otter clan. His name was Tiger Tiger.
I had about ten people in my family. My older brother people called Jimmy Tiger. The girl after him passed away years ago when she was young. I do not remember her name. Another sister was born after her; her name was Mickey. She got married, but she passed away. I was born after her. I have a brother who was born after me, about a year and a half later. We called him Josie; he has passed away. The other brother I have is younger than him. His name is Tommy Tiger; his nickname is "Cokie." Then a girl was born after him; her name is Annie. She got married and was renamed Annie Jim; she's still living pretty well with her husband. Then another girl was born; we called her Lois. She has passed away. A younger boy was born; his name was Bobby Tiger, and he got to be an alligator wrestler, but he has passed away. The youngest sister was born; her name was Mary. She got married and became Mary Osceola. She has passed away.
I cannot remember everything that happened at that particular day and time. But I began to realize I was living in a camp. This happened to be in the Glades. I began to see things and realize what I heard. I felt so wonderful during those times. I can see my grandfather wearing traditional clothes and a hat the medicine men used to wear. He looked scary to me. I remember seeing him at his camp and seeing my grandmother at that camp. She always seemed to be around the fire cooking something or boiling sofkee made from corn. We always managed to drink that.
I remember seeing my mother around the cooking chickee. I remember seeing another lady; she was an aunt of mine. I can't remember seeing other children my age to play with.
One afternoon at that particular time, I remember clearly the birds making noise. Beautiful red birds, the cardinals, sitting up on top of the trees. There was a tree standing there, and they were sitting up there singing and singing. I kept looking at them so red, so beautiful. I thought-I remember that clearly-how does the bird make noise?
It happened that same afternoon the wind was blowing from the southwest. It was blowing hard, and clouds were moving. At that particular time I was feeling very good. I got all excited because the wind was blowing and the clouds were coming closer to us. That made me feel so good. It was getting ready to rain. I had a little bow and arrow my dad made for me. I picked it up and was running and jumping because the wind made me feel so wonderful. I took this bow and arrow and shot it against the wind. The wind was strong enough to carry my arrow back to camp. It finally hit my grandfather and almost hit his eye, but it did not-it hit his head. I could not say anything. They did not realize I did not shoot him; I had shot up in the air against the wind, but the arrow came down because the wind was blowing hard. So it hit my grandfather, and it made him bleed. I did not feel good. My grandmother and mother blamed me that I shot and hit him. I was trying to tell them I did not. So I got whipped for that. But I did not feel bad because I did not shoot him, and I did not want to hurt him, but it happened. They never believed me; my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather all did not believe me. But I was not feeling hurt. They whipped me and told me never to do that again. I didn't accept that because I didn't do it. I was just having fun and enjoying what nature was doing to me, I thought. But I did not know what nature was about at that time.
I remember that particular camp because my grandfather had a type of store, kind of like a grocery store. It was made out of wood frame. They had a bunch of groceries inside, and he traded with our people. Anything he could sell he bought, or he traded for groceries. Then he brought them into the city, Miami. I do not know where. He sold whatever he brought to the people he knew. Then he got a little money to buy groceries and material things and take them back out there to sell to our people. They did not have to come into town for anything; they bought from him. I do not think he spoke any English, but he managed to handle money pretty well. He sold shotguns; he sold traps for animals; he sold about everything he could to the people. A lot of Miccosukee people knew that, so they came from all over to see him and trade with him. Meantime he let them have credit, so people had someplace they could go and get things they needed; then they would go back. In a way we were lucky with our grandparents because we learned so much at that time, but we didn't realize that was the business they were doing. Many Miccosukee people came and traded with him and took groceries home with them because they brought in all types of hides: otter skin, raccoon skin, alligator skin. They were worth good money at that time, I suppose. I really did not know the business. But I know that's the kind of thing he was doing. And we wanted to go in the store so many times because he had cookies. We'd go in there-he let us in sometimes and gave us pieces of cookie. We'd come out and eat them. It was hard to get in the store because he would keep us away, but we did not mind that.
I remember that the boat dock area was north of the camp. Always Miccosukee men were coming in with a canoe and spent a day or two and got what they wanted and went away from there. I don't know their names, and I don't know who they were; but those activities were like that. Sometimes we had about three or four families in that little village; all seemed to be kin. Then other kids came from different places, and we always had a lot of youngsters to play with. Other clans could live with us a while because they had their own village. They were just coming in to pick up different things and go back. I also remember my dad would go out in the canoe and come back with lots of corn, pumpkins, and potatoes for us to eat. We had an outdoor table made just for that. It was built outdoors and was big enough for the corn, pumpkins, potatoes, and whatever we wanted to put in the sun. We put them out on the table and let the sun hit them a few days, a few weeks. We thought that made them sweeter. We always did that; my dad, my mother, my grandmother, we always did that.
There were all kinds of fish; all kinds of birds; all kinds of snakes; all kinds of game. There were just too many sometimes.
I remember my brothers and cousins; we took a canoe out, and we always managed to get fish. Sometimes in deeper water there were lots of fish; we just rocked the boat, and fish started jumping all over the place and they got in our canoe. We took them [back], and our mothers and grandmothers cooked for us. Turtles-we call them yokche-were not a problem because there were so many at that particular camp.
There was just so much you could learn-like going to bed at night. When we had to go to bed at night, most of the time we washed our feet- we ran around barefoot all day. We had to fix our beds. I grew up sleeping on a hardwood [platform]; we called it the sleeping place. The blanket goes on the hardwood, and a mosquito net comes down and goes over you. I remember at night we all slept in one chickee. Chickees are made from palmetto and cypress frames. Sometimes we built them a pretty good size and sometimes a small size. The family chickee is usually a good size. Children slept in the same place as my dad and mom. We all slept in the same chickee, but the platforms were different. But I was small enough and young enough, so they left me with my dad and mother, and my brothers were there, too. We were small and afraid of night.
During [one particular] night I was afraid. I thought I saw something. I never knew what it was that did that to me. We were sleeping inside a mosquito net. We always used a kerosene lamp; it gave us light. It was cut down so just a very little light was coming out, and you could see a shadow. I thought I saw something moving back and forth. Our heads were facing toward the east. That's what we learned to do; we always faced that way. I looked down at my foot; it was facing toward the west. I could see the little light and something moving back and forth, and I got real afraid and did not say anything. It just kept moving back and forth. I wondered what it was. I thought maybe somebody was walking back and forth; I saw that, I thought.
But there was nobody there. No noise, nothing.
It did that maybe twenty minutes and managed to go away. But I never told my mom and dad that. I was just so afraid I couldn't sleep that night. I never told anybody what I saw, things moving, because I had no idea what it was. But I know I was afraid.
We were told night is not a time for us to play. Night is a time we should behave and sit and listen to stories. Do what you must do and sit around the fire. Sometimes you lay on the table under the chickee, facing the sky, looking at the sky, sometimes the stars. Nighttime stories would be told to you. We always did these things. So they told us, our parents told us, we should never run and never go places at night because night is not a time for us to play and run and be happy. Spirits from the body must enjoy the night, so we should let them enjoy the night. And our people enjoy living during daytime. So maybe that was bothering me that time. I did not ever find out what that light was.
Many things happened to us, but nothing serious; no big problems. We just had to know where we would be going hunting next time. We did a lot of hunting. Sometimes in fall, sometimes spring; it depended on what type of game we were going to be hunting. I was too young to know what I should learn that particular time. They had not taught me anything yet. I remember many Miccosukee men coming in with guns. They had all kinds of guns and must have had them for years and years. They showed them to us-my brothers, my cousins, us boys together. They showed us, and they told us which ones were used for each type of game, and they showed us the type the soldiers used to kill people with. Also, I remember seeing the gun that you have to make a bullet for, and it had a big barrel for the powder because they had to make their own bullet and use the powder to make it blow.
We lived there for a long time, I guess, but I can't remember. As far as the Tamiami Trail-it did not go all the way through. It went as far as where we were in my grandmother and grandfather's camp. Maybe half a mile northwest the Tamiami Trail ended.
We visited other places in the Glades where Miccosukee people lived. Our people identified the different villages by giving them names like "Crying over Land" or "High Place." To me it was a beautiful place. There was lots of water, and we traveled back and forth in the canoe to visit these places. Most all Miccosukee camps have bunches of bananas and sugarcane, pumpkins, potatoes, and things like that. So us boys visited other camps like our aunts', or maybe other folks that lived nearby us. We spent time chewing sugarcane; sometimes people had bananas, and we enjoyed eating them. In between times we did a lot of swimming because the water looked so good. It looked so clean you could see the bottom. You could see fish, all kinds of fish.
I myself enjoyed watching fish. Sometimes we lay in the canoe with nothing to do but enjoy watching little fish in the water. Way down in the water the big freshwater shrimp were there. They have small holes in the muck, and they go in there. When they want food they come out and get their food and go back in. But there were a lot of freshwater shrimp and lots of little shrimp swimming underwater. We used to watch that. And also there were all kinds of small turtles; we used to watch them too. If you look and wait-you just have to spend a little time just waiting and be patient. They can come out and start swimming and doing things like they were playing with you. That's how we enjoyed watching so many times. I did anyhow; some of the boys didn't like to do that. But I did that so many times because I guess I have imagination. I remember that the water was so clean you could see the bass, big ones and little ones. You could see the mullet that used to be out there. And some are tarpons; we used to see them. But I was too little to get those fish; I could only get them by rocking the boat to let them get in. As far as turtles, it was no problem for us to get them.
We had to learn what we could kill for food. We were taught never to kill anything except what would be good eating, and that's it. The grandmother would tell a young man whatever he sees, go back and tell his grandmother or aunt. The aunt or grandmother would say, "That is a deer that you are talking about.
Excerpted from BUFFALO TIGER by BUFFALO TIGER and Harry A. Kersey Jr. Copyright © 2002 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Series Editors' Introduction
1. A Miccosukee Childhood
2. My Beliefs
3. Learning the White Man's Ways
4. The Struggle for Recognition
5. The Miccosukee Tribe
6. Our Heritage, Our Life, Our Future
Afterword / The Importance of a Life
Appendix / Constructing a Life History