BIG CYPRESS — In the unspoiled southern Everglades half a century ago, a group of Native men burned historic words into a Key deer buckskin, filling almost every available space with pronouncements of independence and freedom that rival the United States’ Declaration of Independence.
They were the Mikasuki Tribe of the Seminole Nation, as they were known among themselves in the white man’s tongue.
“We have … had your local Indian Agent interfering in our internal affairs and had your Secretary of the Interior tell us to change the form of government under which we have lived for centuries,” the buckskin reads. “We have, and have had for centuries, our own culture, our own customs, our own government, our own language and our own way of life which is different from the government, the culture, the customs, the language and the way of life of the White Man.
“We do say that we are not White Men but Indians, do not wish to become White Men but wish to remain Indians, and have an outlook on all of these things different from the outlook of the White Man.”
The eloquent but powerful words stood squarely in opposition to the U.S. policies of the mid-1940s that sought to assimilate Native Americans. The inauguration of World War II hero Gen. Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower to the U.S. presidency in 1953 put a military-style fast track on the policy. American Indians across the continent watched as their lands were gobbled up by soldiers, lawyers and eminent domain, their customs and culture made illegal and their children housed in boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their own language.
In the Everglades, where the last Florida Indians hid for decades from cavalries of soldiers that eventually gave up trying to put them on the Trail of Tears, a few Native men decided to strike back. Hence, the famous 1954 Buckskin Declaration of Independence, which demanded Florida’s Indian people and their land be left alone.
“It was the birth, really, of Florida’s Native tribal sovereignty,” said Paul Backhouse, director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. “The document predates federal recognition of either the Seminole Tribe of Florida (1957) or the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida (1962).”
Instigated and translated by Miccosukee statesman Buffalo Tiger, signed with the marked Xs of clan leaders Sam Jones Micco, Ingraham Billie, Jimmie Billie, Oscar Hoe, Frank Charlie, Jimmie Henry, Willie Jim, George Osceola and Jack Clay, the cured deer hide was adorned with feathers and carried by Buffalo Tiger on a train to Washington, D.C. There, with the help of Miami attorney Morton Silver, the Buckskin was delivered to Eisenhower’s office.
President Eisenhower was either unimpressed with the Buckskin or never saw it. He took no action to change the prevailing policy that dictated that the Miccosukees could only be recognized as a faction of the Seminoles, an arrangement the Miccosukee Indians had steadfastly refused numerous times, dating back to the 1940s. The Miccosukees stayed in the background when the Seminole Tribe of Florida received its federal recognition in 1957.
In early 1959, not long after the rebel forces led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, a group of Indians led by Buffalo Tiger flew to Havana at Castro’s invitation. Castro met them at the airport in one of his first official duties as the new Cuban president. Castro offered the U.S.-rejected Miccosukees reservation land and sovereignty on Cuban soil.
Years later, Buffalo Tiger recalled, “When Castro took over Cuba, he wanted us to come over as his guests. We went and were treated OK. When we got back, the United States said, ‘OK, don’t go back. Promise you won’t, and you will be Miccosukees.’ We needed our own power and we had to go to Cuba to get it.”
Castro’s invitation, as Lee Tiger wrote in his father’s obituary last year, was “brought on by the country’s remembrance of a treaty between the Miccosukee Tribe and Spain dating back to the 1700s.”
Tiger presented Castro with his own buckskin, burned with words of praise for the rebel leader for fighting for the independence of the Cuban people. The trip was covered by the Miami Herald and the resultant publicity brought worldwide embarrassment to the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” When Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, took office on Jan. 20, 1961, the nation’s policy of American Indian Tribe termination and assimilation ended.
By Jan. 11, 1962, all the paperwork was completed and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida was granted federal recognition. Buffalo Tiger became the first chairman, a post he held until 1985.
When he left office, Eisenhower brought the Buckskin Declaration home to Abilene, Kansas, where a new presidential library was forming.
It was found there in a box last August after a nationwide search by Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum researchers.
“The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library recently approved a year-long loan of the Declaration so it could return to South Florida as part of the upcoming exhibition ‘Struggle for Survival,’ which opens here Jan. 16,” Backhouse said. “The exhibition will tell the story of the Tribes from the wars through to the fierce statement of sovereignty represented by the Buckskin Declaration.”
A small group of the late Buffalo Tiger’s extended family attended a special preview showing of the Buckskin Declaration at the Museum on Nov. 18.
“Amid tears of joy and wise words from the visiting elders, one observation really stood out,” Backhouse said. “The Declaration fundamentally represents tribal sovereignty both then and now. It demonstrates a will by Florida’s Indians to engage in government-to-government consultation, a political message that is central to the core philosophy of both the modern Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes. We hope Tribal citizens, as well as the public, will make a note to join us for the Jan. 16 opening and take advantage of the rare opportunity to see this powerful document.”