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Climate Conversations – February 2022

Editor’s note: This interview was supported by the Seminole Tribe’s Climate Resilience Program. Cody Motlow is a tribal member and serves as the climate resiliency coordinator through the tribe’s Heritage and Environmental Resources Office (HERO). Originally presented virtually, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Samuel Tommie

Cody Motlow: Hello, my name is Cody Motlow, I am a Seminole tribal member and the climate resiliency coordinator for the tribe’s H.E.R.O department. Mr. Tommie, I would love for you to tell me a little bit about yourself.

Samuel Tommie: Hi, my name is Samuel Tommie. I was born in the middle of the Everglades about 40 miles west of Miami, which is now the northwest part of the Miccosukee Reservation. I moved permanently into Big Cypress and I’ve been here ever since. I went to school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the Institute of American Indian Arts. Since then, I’ve been back and I’ve lived most areas in the traditional Everglades. My primary career is artist. I’ve been in film productions for a while. I’m swinging back into doing art, and I actually have about six careers, probably seven. So I juggle a lot, I’m still learning to manage myself.

Cody Motlow: I used to live in New Mexico for a short time and took online classes with the Institute of American Indian Arts once I moved back to Florida. It’s a really great place. So, my next question is, are you familiar with climate change and what are your thoughts and opinions on that?

Samuel Tommie: Climate change; it’s something I’ve been talking about probably for over 30 years so I’m hoping that everyone is educated on that or awake. I’m hoping a majority of Americans are awake. I used to educate people from the beginning about the environment. I worked at Miccosukee airboat tours and I talked about the chemicals in the water and how you can’t fish. I remember going to different kinds of protests, like when Florida Power & Light wanted to put a power plant two miles from the Big Cypress Reservation. I’ve been to many, many protests. TV stations, radio stations, conferences, and panels. I’m still speaking at public appearances.

Cody Motlow: You mentioned your art earlier. Can you tell me more about it?

Samuel Tommie: With my art I can make the statements. I have a mural in Wynwood area. It’s going to always have new things on there, but it reflects the Seminole culture and the Everglades. So this is one way to get my message out there and about climate change.

Cody Motlow: What is your history with teaching the youth and how have you supported young activists? What has your experience been like?

Samuel Tommie: Like I said, this is something I’ve been concerned about for more than half of my lifetime and it’s like I’ve gotten to point where I’m really, really tired of it. You know young people, 17 and under, have their own environmental global groups and they’re very effective. The young people deserve things to change immediately and to have these horrible politicians taken out that don’t care about making changes. That’s the position that I have come to, and my concerns for the environment, and so when I go to these places and talk, that’s what I tell them. As far as our Seminole Tribe and other Native American tribes, I am afraid we may have become too complicit with leisure culture of America.

One of the most interesting, great chiefs in the past is Chief Seattle. He’s a fine example of statements that he made to the president of the United States. He talked about the environment, he described the life of the pine trees, and how it can make a person feel different if you have a different respect for it. In his statements he made it clear back then, more than 100 years ago, he talked about where the human being is not the Creator of the web of life – we are a part of the web of life, if you break one strand, you’re going to misalign the whole web. He made it clear to the United States that everything is connected. Everything is connected through science, molecules, atoms, everything’s connected and climate change has been the result of not respecting that.

Our chiefs in the past have tried to communicate with the United States, and they all made it clear that we are all connected. We have to work together. We’re connected with each other. We’re connected with the environment and we’re connected with Creator, and that is how it is. It’s because of our culture, for over 17,000 years, scientifically I can kind of pretty much put it back at least 17,000 years, I can see where our culture of respect in the Earth started, so we’ve had so many years doing this. We did not have to have the constitution on a paper. We were at a point where the constitution itself was within our hearts, how we lived day to day was the truth because we were a civilization far, far advanced.

Climate change is going to have a lot of effects. It’s going to change the cities and every infrastructure that has been built. It’s not going to match what the creator is doing. Climate change is sort of Creator’s energy, because we human beings messed with the chain of events. So, you know, nature is doing its thing. And I see that as Creator’s power, and that’s the most important thing for me. I tell people nowadays, like, well, this is what I have seen and I’m not worried about changing your mind.

Things like over-development in Florida should be reconsidered. Florida is very fragile and a piece of creation that should be respected. I feel that overdevelopment is the opposite of respect to the creation, and that is my message. That is the message from my parents. My grandparents. Your grandparents. I’m not here to change your mind. I’m here to say I believe in Creator. I love how he operates. I love how he does things and if things don’t change, things will change on their own beyond our own power.

Cody Motlow: On that note, my next question would be what would you like to see from our tribal youth in our community as a whole? What would be your advice on how people can help and how they can make a difference? What do you want to see from our community when it comes to climate change and everything that’s happening on our reservations and on the land around our reservations?

Samuel Tommie: I’m really happy. It makes it feel good that the youth is concerned, and they’re more aware of what’s happening with climate change and all the effects that are going to be happening. I’m really happy to see that with our tribal youth. There needs to be more meetings within their own, gatherings of the minds at different levels, grassroots perhaps. But also with their respective representatives. They need to take the youth very serious, make sure to have it organized in a way of handling things, seeing what kind of problems do we need to face and what kind of solutions that we need to come up with. And we need to ask “How is our representative going to help us [and] how is our tribal government going to help us?”

Also, I believe in getting help from the outside, and I have done that several times and networked, so I feel like the youth need to be supported in this manner. I think first, they really, really need to figure out what it is that we are facing and figure out the timetables. Like what did we need to do in the past and what do we need to do in the next years five years, 10 years that will help us all get focused.

Cody Motlow: Yes, climate change is very real and the risks are so apparent and we know what we’re facing with the sea levels rising and the risks of flooding. I compiled some data recently and based on that research, I found out that by 2080 – nearly half of the calendar year will be over 95 degrees in nearly all of our reservations. What else should we be thinking about?

Samuel Tommie: We need to be getting into having food sources like gardens. We need to have a place in Big Cypress that’s designed for the community or even for the whole tribe, where a lot of plants and food can be grown out there. I’ve talked to others about this idea myself about 20 years ago and other tribal members have talked about this, so the ideas have been there, but nobody’s pushing for it. And if we had pushed for it five years ago we would be doing great right now. I’m kind of wishing that I would have pushed harder for it five years ago because of the pandemic. The supply chain coming from other countries is backed up right now, the way to transport all these food and supplies to consumers is a problem right now, and it can happen again.

The tribe needs to be prepared and it’s something that needs to happen as soon as possible, having our own food supplies out here. We need 20 acres out here or more. Our youth needs to be educated on food sovereignty, that needs to be heavily considered.

My message to the youth is that our tribal people and our sovereignties have always been attacked; it’s been attacked since we established our sovereignty, and it’s going to continue, but we don’t see it’s happening on political levels. There’s organizations that are willing to and hoping to take away our sovereignty rights. And so we need to be aware of that. We need to know this. This is what’s going on and it’s part of our survival. We have to know what’s important for us and our sovereignty rights are very important for us. It’s our way that we can protect the future and our youth can protect their future and their young ones. It’s very, very important to be aware.

I think food sovereignty is where they need to be educated and they need to set goals and be aware that our sovereignty can be taken away, and I’ve been warned about that by my grandparents and the elders there’s always this pattern and it’s always there, along with our histories, being aware of and knowing that we have to protect ourselves. We as tribal people are very unique and we have a very unique messages to the world. We have contributions that we can make to the world itself. We have integrity.

Cody Motlow: Speaking on food sovereignty, our department actually created a food sovereignty group. It’s a few Tribal members/employees and non-tribal employees from different departments, and USET, that have interest in it. We have talked about the possibility of community gardens and integrating healthy food choices for Tribal members.

We’re hoping this spring to have Gathering Fires. We’re going to try to have them at three of the reservations, and we would like to have the youth and elders come together and join us. We want to have speakers integrating our culture and tribal perspective with modern science when it comes to climate change and that’s something we’re hoping we get off the ground, because we really want to reach out to the community and have people involved and people take interest in this.

Samuel Tommie: That’s so great. I appreciate what you have planned and I look forward to seeing that happen. I know your grandparents. I know your family. I spent time with them and talked to them and I received some wisdom from Jack Motlow. I was just thinking about that today. I think about that all the time. I feel happy and I have a strong feeling that you’re following what’s really in your heart. I think you’re starting to get the hang of it and I’m really happy when a young person is doing that. So, it gives me a lot of hope and I appreciate what you’re doing.

Cody Motlow: Thank you for saying that. This is all new to me and I’m learning along the way myself. That’s my own message to my community is that you don’t have to be an expert. If you see something you feel is wrong, just take interest and start somewhere. We’re all learning together.