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Michael Frank, a 56-year-old Miccosukee Tribe member, points to Bone Island, a small tree-covered hammock in the Everglades that got its name during the Seminole Wars of the 1800s. When Frank's ancestors arrived to check on relatives after the white man swept through, "All they saw were the bones," he explains during a steamy fall day on an airboat in the waters north of the Tamiami Trail.
Frank was raised on these islands under a chickee hut with a dozen family members from the Otter clan until he was 7 years old. They lived off bass they caught and corn they planted, he says. But then farmers began draining phosphorus — eventually 4,000 tons a year, twice the weight of the Statue of Liberty — into the area's watershed. And mercury began pooling from nearby industry and trade winds.
"I haven't had fish from here in 20 years," Frank says. "I last hunted here in 1985 or '90." He supposes he could catch a bird or a fish, but "why kill an animal that's full of mercury? If I ate more than one or two fish a month, I'd die of mercury poisoning."
This area — a vast, beautiful, lily-pad-dotted expanse south of I-75 — is considered by federal experts the most pristine part of the Everglades. Earlier this month, members of the Miccosukee Tribe spent five days on a fleet of airboats to execute their annual Fall Everglades Study — basically, an environmental census.
Though any outsider would become disoriented amid the sawgrass and clouds that stretch to the horizon, the natives zip around sites they know as "Stinking Ground," "Bead Island," and "Jumping Black Man" without needing maps or a GPS.
Today, Florida is facing water crises on all sides of the cattail-congested River of Grass. There's a giant algal bloom in Florida Bay, a huge die-off in the Indian River Lagoon, and dikes about to burst around one of the world's largest reservoirs, Lake Okeechobee. Though Florida and the federal government just in the past few months committed $130 million to raise the Tamiami Trail and clean up the St. Lucie River, it's not nearly enough, critics say.
"We're still at war with the United States," Frank says. "Our war is a war for the trees. The battle is for water, for birds, for existence."
The tribe's warring began when soon-to-be president Andrew Jackson's forces invaded Florida in 1818. The killing and displacement of Native Americans continued through the end of the Third Seminole War in 1858. Troops believed they had shipped all but perhaps 100 of the natives to Oklahoma and New Orleans as part of what historians came to call the "Trail of Tears."
But "some hid in the islands, where the soldiers could not see us," Frank says. While many of the Seminoles returned during the decades that followed and some prospered, others never left their homes in the tree-covered hammocks and knee-deep water.
He explains that those who stayed were told by tribe leaders: "Do not leave the Everglades. Do not assimilate. Do not go to Miami. Do not go to Naples. Do not go to Broward County."
Frank was born in 1957, the year the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which today has more than 2,000 members, was recognized by the U.S. government. Some natives organized as the separate Miccosukee Tribe, which was federally recognized as a sovereign nation in 1962 and today has about 600 members. A small number of independents opted not to join either group.
As a young child, Frank lived in the Everglades with five brothers, five sisters, and "nieces and nephews all over the place." In the early '60s, "my grandpa couldn't provide for us anymore," he says.
Frank's family eventually moved out of the woods and accepted a modern house. But they still believed "never, ever live in a home with four walls. Breathe clean air. The air in a house isn't clean," he says. They even constructed a chickee hut next to the house and used the the house for storage.
He went to school in the early '70s for two or three years but left during fourth grade. "I used to run around in a [traditional Native American] skirt, and at school, they made me put pants on — but it was so hot!" He says he taught himself to read newspapers. Over the years, he made a living building chickees, hunting and fishing, and doing carpentry.
He also learned a lot about environmental issues and watched throughout the '80s and '90s as the Miccosukees launched various lawsuits against federal and state governments. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had built dams and levees to control the water flow from Central Florida through the Everglades. This system had the unintended consequences of polluting the water with agricultural runoff and alternately starving or flooding the Everglades to the south. The lawsuits argued the water being released was far too contaminated. One case based on the federal Clean Water Act went to the Supreme Court in 2004.
"They're not doing what they said they're going to do," Frank says. He finds it absurd that he had to force the U.S. government to follow its own policies. "When we sue them, it's not our law. It's their law!"
The Florida Everglades Forever Act, signed in 1994, prioritized Everglades restoration, and a federal followup in 2000 outlined $11.9 billion in projects that would be completed over four decades. But many of those plans have become bogged down in bureaucracy — compromised and underfunded, Frank says.
He's now a point man for the tribe on Everglades issues and recently traveled to Washington, D.C., with tribal chairman Colley Billie to urge Congress to prioritize key restoration projects.
On a recent seven-hour airboat tour of the Glades, Frank and others depart near the Miccosukee Indian Village off the Tamiami Trail just as the morning light cuts through the endless sawgrass.
The team encounters only a few scattered birds where there used to be 100,000, the native surveyors and their scientists say. If there are any frogs or deer about, they remain hidden on the tree islands that sweep to the horizon like thousands of stepping stones.
Water hyacinths proliferate like carpets — but the floating plant with the lavender flower is actually an invasive species that can double its spread in six days. Cattails choke the waterways — "a sign of polluted water," Frank says. "The phosphorus and nutrient levels are too high."
Frank sadly explains the Miccosukee name for that area means "brightly lit place." He says the river otters, bobcats, raccoons, and rabbits that were common 20 years ago are scarce now. "When I was a boy, I'd look down and there'd be a snake wrapped around my leg," he says. But today there's little wildlife, and the deer that were once plentiful have virtually disappeared. "When the water is too high, they drown or go up on a levee, where they are easy targets for hunters."
These days, Frank lives in a house. "I've got a master bedroom, a walk-in closet" — but he still maintains his island and plants corn on it every year.
He says the tribe is still seeking two basic things from the government: "Maintain the proper level of water, and clean the water before you pump it in."
"There isn't anything new," he laments. "It's the same circle. Every four years, there's a new president, a new governor, a new EPA, new senators. I have to re-educate everyone again. I'm still here, and I'm still waiting."
If the U.S. government ever carries out its plan and restores the Everglades, there'll be one main force to thank, Frank says. "The voters? They don't know nothing. The Miccosukee Tribe — it's us that's going to push them."