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Making Seminole voices heard to protect the future of South Florida

Fact: Everglades “restoration” is the largest environmental project in the history of the planet. This monumental endeavor being carried out by the U.S. government extends from the headwaters south of Orlando that fill Lake Okechobee all the way to the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.

The effects to the reservations and ancestral lands of the Seminole people for current and future generations will be huge. This project could potentially transform the landscape of Florida.

While we all hope that this transformation will return some of the natural water-flow and the natural environment and wildlife that Tribal elders remember, the truth is that it is an uncertain process where numerous stakeholders all vying to have a seat at the table and a hand in planning process.

As a sovereign government the Seminole Tribe is in a unique position to have its voice heard because the U.S. government has a fundamental Trust obligation to listen to the concerns of the Tribe when planning these large projects.

After all, it makes very good sense also that Seminole voices be heard during this process as it has been the Seminole people themselves who have survived and indeed thrived in the unique South Florida environment.

Numerous stories from community members and Tribal elders, works of art, photographs, postcards, clothing, and objects like canoes in the collection of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum point to how the environment of South Florida has changed over the last 100 years.

Likewise, former camps on tree islands in the Big Cypress swamp and in the Everglades itself point to the Tribe’s long occupation of the region and deep understanding of the ecology of the region. Many of these camps are remembered by Tribal elders and have also been recorded in the records of the Tribes Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

Community members remember when the Big Cypress Reservation still had Big Cypress trees sufficient to carve canoes for hunting, fishing and transportation – these are no longer available.

Indeed ,the Tribes Environmental Resources Management Department has been working with the community and collecting data on these changes to the environment for more than 20 years.

Unfortunately, Seminole concerns are rarely considered early in the process by the engineers who are planning Everglades “restoration.” This situation has led to difficulties in getting engineers and planners to appreciate the Seminole cultural landscape and thus avoid sensitive ancestral cultural sites.

A good example of this situation is the current U.S. Army Corps project called the “Lake Okeechobee Water Restoration Project,” which threatens to impact ancestral cultural sites just to the east of the Brighton Reservation.

In response to this and other large projects being planned, the Tribe has for some years been requesting that the U.S. Army Corps complete a report on the Seminoles’ understanding of their own ancestral homelands so the Corps can do a better job of planning future projects.

Unfortunately, prior to this year, no money was set aside to complete this important study.

A glimmer of hope emerged however in early 2020 as sufficient funding was set aside by the U.S. Army Corps to complete the study.

The Seminole Tribe is completing this important work itself; after all, who better to tell its own story. The study will allow the Tribe to point to its rich culture and understanding of the environment without giving away any of its cultural secrets.

Work is already underway and we will be working directly with the community on the best ways to make sure your voice is heard so that the culture and environment of current and future generations of Seminole people are acknowledged and protected.

If you want to know more about this project or would like to be involved please let us know. We will be reaching out on all reservations and also to the non-reservation community also.

You can contact either myself or Quenton Cypress at the Billy L. Cypress Building on the Big Cypress Reservation or at the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-ne Community Center also on Big Cypress.

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