IMMOKALEE — With the stroke of a pen on Oct. 26, 1989, hundreds of Tribal members, local politicians and community members witnessed the birth of the Immokalee Reservation as William D. Ott, Eastern Area director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, signed the documents that placed 595 acres into trust for the Seminole Tribe.
But modern-day Seminoles were not the first indigenous group to call the land home.
For centuries, the Calusa sought the dry, higher ground of Immokalee. Seminoles arrived in the 19th century as they fled from the U.S. Army during the Seminole Wars. They found it an ideal location to hunt and live during the wet season and named it Gopher Ridge for the abundance of tortoises that burrowed in the loose sand of the ridge, according to an Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki academic paper.
After the Civil War, trader W.H. “Bill” Brown built a homestead near Seminole camps and traded with them for the rest of his life. His daughter Rose Brown named the settlement “I-mok-a-li,” which means “my home” in Mikasuki.
Businessman W. Dyess Roberts, another important figure in the history of the Seminoles, came to Immokalee in 1914. He allowed the Tribe to establish a camp on his property free of charge. The camp remained in place for about 50 years.
Nancy Motlow’s parents came from Hollywood to Immokalee in search of work in the 1950s. The family, including her sisters Louise, Mary and Alice, moved to the camp and lived there with about 45 people from seven or eight other families.
When she attended elementary school, Nancy Motlow realized that non-Indians lived very differently than the Seminoles.
“They had running water; we had a community pump,” she said. “We slept in chickees under mosquito nets. Now I think, ‘How did I live without air conditioning,’ but we survived. When that’s all you know, you think it’s good.”
Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank also grew up in the camp, which was primarily Panther Clan. He became the first Tribal member from Immokalee to graduate from college when he earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas in 1982.
“The ladies who were there when I was growing up made it imperative that all the kids finish high school,” he said. “Education and a strong work ethic were stressed. There was no golden parachute; if you lived there you had to work.”
When the truck farming industry blossomed in Immokalee in the 1950s and 1960s, it created employment opportunities for Tribal members. Rep. Frank said there were always a couple empty chickees in the camp for people to stay while they worked in the fields. They came from Big Cypress, Brighton and the Everglades, he recalled.
By the late 1960s, the Roberts family wanted to sell the land for development. According to a Seminole Tribune article in November 1989, Tribal member Jimmy Cypress, with help from the justice of the peace O.W. Hancock, urged Collier County officials to find another location for the soon-to-be-displaced Seminoles. The county deeded the Tribe 4.7 acres on Stockade Road, where Seminoles built a new camp and resided in chickees for another 20 years until the BIA built houses in the 1980s.
Deloris Jimmie Alvarez lived in the Stockade Road Camp, which stood where townhomes are now located. She remembers living in the woods, going to school and working in the fields on weekends. She said they dug holes for water, scooped out the impurities on top and used the cleaner water beneath.
“We used to swim and wash our clothes in the canals,” said Louise Motlow, Alvarez’s aunt. “Now you see garbage in them.”
When running water finally arrived, Mary Motlow built a shower and laundry house near the camp.
“We grew up in chickees with no running water or electricity,” Alvarez said. “I enjoyed it, but it was the only life I knew.”
About 40 years ago, an influential and driven group of women, including Nancy Motlow, Louise Motlow and Elaine Aguilar, worked to place the Stockade Road land into trust with the BIA.
Louise Motlow pushed the Tribe to set money aside to purchase land, and Nancy Motlow served as an interpreter and then as a liaison for the Tribe with the BIA. The Stockade Road parcel and three more parcels of the present-day reservation were assembled piece by piece in 1970, 1986, 1989 and 1992.
“Once the Tribe started making money from bingo, we were spending money on a lot of other things but I wanted something that would be here for a long time,” said Chairman James E. Billie in a 1989 interview in The Seminole Tribune. “Once we achieved the money, we purchased the land. Then it became a matter of time to put the land in trust.”
When Chairman Billie was elected, Nancy Motlow traveled to Washington, D.C. repeatedly to present the Tribe’s dire need for housing to the BIA. She brought photos of the chickee camp to strengthen her case.
“When [the Tribe] purchased land it was put in my married name, McInturff, which kept it from being identified as Seminole,” she said. “They wanted to keep officials and other people from buying the property.”
Keeping the Seminole name out of the land purchase worked; the Tribe bought the land on which future generations could live.
Nancy Motlow wanted the same representation with Council as Big Cypress. In her tenure as liaison, she worked to build a clinic on Seminole land in the early 1980s, which meant Immokalee residents no longer had to travel to Big Cypress, Hollywood, Fort Myers, Naples or Clewiston for health care.
Alvarez called the clinic the biggest improvement for Tribal members.
By the early 1980s, Immokalee also had a trailer that housed a field office and a smoke shop, and it had a chickee from which to sell arts and crafts. The casino was built in 1994, the modern field office in 2003, the clinic was relocated into a large trailer in 2005 and the Seminole Casino Hotel opened in 2015.
Amy Yzaguirre also spent time as a child in the Stockade Road Camp when she visited her grandmother Alice Billie Jimmie.
“It was an adventure every night,” she said. “Sometimes you would wake up and there would be a snake on the floor. We would hear every animal and try to guess what it was. We’d sit by the fire and tell stories about our days. It was an adventure, especially for someone who was afraid of spiders.”
Today, Immokalee Reservation remains predominantly a Panther camp with many of the original families now living in modern houses.
About 200 call the reservation home, but 300 to 500 more live nearby waiting for housing to be available on the reservation, Nancy Motlow said.
She believes younger Tribal members differ from her generation because of money.
“Immokalee has come a long way,” Alvarez said. “We have more now but have lost the closeness of a family because we live in separate houses. When we were in chickees, we used to help each other, live and eat together.”
Aguilar grew up helping her mother build chickees at the original camp while helping raise her cousins. She said the younger generation has to be convinced to learn their culture.
“The seniors will never let go of their heritage and culture,” she said. “The best thing was to see the BIA create the reservation and know it would always be ours. It’s my home and nobody can take it away or ask me to move.”