FORT LAUDERDALE — For the first five years of his life, Sam Tommie was surrounded by water.
Growing up as a young boy in the Everglades made a lasting impression on Tommie, who spoke about the importance of water during the second night of a three-day Native American Heritage Month program hosted by the Upper Room Art Gallery in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 15.
Before his family moved to the Big Cypress Reservation in the early 1960s, Tommie learned a lot about water.
“My family has been in this area since the early 1800s. They lived off the water and off small islands,” Tommie said. “My family could dig into the ground and clear water would come into the hole and we could drink that; it was good water. We did that.”
Tommie recalled going with his grandmother to other small islands where the family had gardens. He remembered how the songs from the birds in the morning differed from their songs in the middle of the day and in the evening. He discussed the spirituality that flows from water.
“The water is spirit; there’s spirit in it. There’s life in it. There’s healing properties in the water,” Tommie said. “We used it to wash our face to wash away bad dreams from the night before. This is how we would start the day.”
Tommie’s discussion came in the midst of continued tensions over the construction of a pipeline in North Dakota and growing tensions over a natural gas pipeline in Florida.
“We have to do something; the time is now,” he said.
Tommie said he is planning to go to North Dakota and join protestors for part of the winter. He said he talked to Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault about both situations.
“He’s aware of the environmental problems in Florida. I talked to him about that and about things going on out there. I hope to meet with him again,” Tommie said.
“We did three days of solidarity, different things people could do for immediate response to the situation,” said Robin Haines Merrill, the Upper Room Art Gallery’s executive director. “Today was like the national anti-[Dakota Access Pipeline] issue and we’ve got our own pipeline issue, too.”
Indeed. Just a couple days before the start of Upper Art Room Gallery’s program, 14 protesters were reportedly arrested in Gilchrist County east of Gainesville while protesting the construction of the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline. The concerns of environmentalists are similar to those in North Dakota, that the pipeline could harm waterways and drinking water.
According to organizers of the Gallery program, “the pipeline is being laid in sensitive Florida wetlands, disturbing natural springs, sinkholes, and traveling under creeks and the Suwannee River.” Haines Merrill said Nicole Williams, an artist who participates in the Gallery’s Tribal Arts Project, was among the arrested.
The situation made the Gallery’s program even more relevant and timely as participants sought avenues to help the protesters and educate the public. Only a handful of people were in attendance in the Gallery to listen to Tommie’s discussion and a talk from former Congressional primary candidate Tim Canova about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but hundreds watched live online thanks to streaming.
“We wanted to have this event to help bring awareness to the issue, but also we need to financially support them,” Haines Merrill said. “All of us are working and not all of us can leave our jobs and go up there. How are they going to pay their bills? We’re trying to give them gas cards and Publix cards to help them with their supplies. They’re camping out in three locations and it’s going to be long term.”
As part of the program, Pedro Zepeda spent a good chunk of the three days continuing his canoe-carving project. Zepeda, who is carving the canoe from a Cypress tree felled by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, answered questions from visitors and performed his work in front of anyone who stopped by the window-front space.