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Fond memories for Seminoles who called Indian Camp home

Mary Lou Alvarado, Barbara Garza, Virginia Tommie and Manuel Garza in his mother Nancy Osceola’s arms in 1966. They all lived in the Indian Camp at the time. (Courtesy photo)

IMMOKALEE — Immokalee’s Indian Camp had no electricity or running water, but the children who lived there in the 1960s remember it as a happy place.

The 160-acre wooded site holds an untold number of memories for the Seminoles who called that land home decades ago. With the purchase of the land by the Seminole Tribe in 2021, home has come home.

About eight families, including Norita Yzaguirre’s, had camps on the site. Yzaguirre lived at the Indian Camp from 1958 to 1966. Her family, which consisted of parents Jack and Lena Motlow and eight children, moved from Big Cypress to Immokalee. She has fond memories of playing with kids from other families. Each family had its own camp, but they all shared one well. The large site had paths through the woods to the other family camps and they visited each other frequently.

“We were kids running wild out there,” said Yzaguirre, who still lives in Immokalee. “We lived in chickees, there were no modern homes. We were like a big family that lived in different areas.”

Yzaguirre is still close to the other families who lived there.

“We just played in the woods. We didn’t have TV,” she said. “After we graduated from high school, we moved to other reservations.”

Clarence Motlow, Yzaguirre’s younger brother, remembers his grandfather Jack Motlow caught alligators and sold the hides.

“He let me soak the hides and go to Clewiston with him to sell them,” Motlow recalled. “It took us all day to drive to Clewiston. I also interpreted for him as much as I could. He did a lot of medicine and he let me go into the woods with him. I realized when I got older that it was a historical event.”

Motlow said they survived off the land, mostly.

“Life was easy and simple,” he said. “We played in the woods with the other kids; it was like living in a park.”

Jimmy Wayne Holdiness, who grew up in Immokalee, is Grace Motlow’s son. Yzaguirre and Motlow are his aunt and uncle. He never lived at the Indian Camp, but he’s been told a lot stories about life in the camp.

“My great-grandparents, Jack and Lena Motlow, had the biggest camp,” Holdiness said. “They lived the old way and always had a fire burning. At school, all the kids who lived there were forced to take showers because they smelled of smoke.”

Gary McInturff, Nancy Motlow’s son and Jack and Lena’s grandson, was a toddler at the camp.

“I remember we were dragged through the woods on a plank behind a horse,” McInturff said. “It was like a ride, it was a lot of fun. My uncle John Jimmie was the rodeo guy and got a horse.”

Nancy Garza also lived there in the early 1960s with her family, the Osceolas.

“There weren’t too many families, it wasn’t a big community,” Garza said. “It was just a place to stay because my parents, Harjo and Alice Osceola, wanted to send us to school here in Immokalee. They were originally from Big Cypress.”

Garza lived with her parents, grandmother Lucy Tiger and two brothers and a sister. A typical day included going to elementary school and cooking.

“It was all we knew, When we lived in Big Cypress we lived the same way,” Garza said. “I never knew what was hard or fun, it was just something you had to live day to day. We moved into a house when the tribe bought the acreage we now live on and started building homes.”

Carol Cypress, of the Frank family, lived in the camp when she was about eight or nine years old. She remembers that everyone at camp spoke Elaponke.

“We lived there because Collier County was the only one that let us go to school,” Cypress said. “It was free out there; we could go anywhere we wanted. We’d play in the woods, look for swamp apples and dealt with the leeches. The water came to the edge of the camp.”

Charlie Tiger lived there in his grandmother Betty Clay Billie’s camp when he was in second grade and was about eight years old. He remembers the kids were always dirty and their clothes were cleaned on washboards.

“I remember a lot of trees, chickees and wetland,” Tiger said. “Behind the camp we were knee-deep in water. We’d wake up with alligators around the chickees.”

On Sundays they walked to church in a pole barn near Lake Trafford, a few miles away through the woods. Tiger said his grandmother made them go every week.

Linda Beletso lived there as a child, but her parents Elizabeth and Jimmy Roberts, moved back and forth from Big Cypress to Immokalee for field work. Even though each of the eight families had their own camp on the site, Beletso remembers it as one big camp where all the kids played together.

“If we didn’t go to school, the officers would come to find us,” she said. “We’d run into the woods and they never followed us.”

Beletso explained that they didn’t go to school on days they had to babysit for younger siblings while their parents worked in the fields. Sometimes they went with their parents to the fields while they worked and waited by the car. Beletso and her three siblings would eat the food her parents planned to eat for lunch.

“We were taught not to talk to strangers, so we were scared of outsiders,” Beletso said. “Sometimes someone would come into the camp drunk when our parents weren’t there. We’d all scatter into the woods; that was our safe place.”

The road wasn’t paved and the paths were made of black dirt; Beletso remembers her hands and feet were dirty every day. There was an orange grove across from the camp and sometimes her father would get some oranges.

“The best memory of camp was those oranges,” she said. “They were a sweet treat for us. We didn’t eat a lot of candy.”

Occasionally they would walk to the Buy Rite store and get some penny candies, but that was a rare occurrence.

“At night we would all go back to our own chickees,” Beletso said. “That was one happy camp. I didn’t look at us as being poor, but when I look back I guess we were. But we were happy.”

Beletso said she would love to see some kind of museum on the Indian Camp site. When the Seminole families lived at the Indian Camp site, most of the land belonged to the Collier family. Pam Brown’s father Percy Brown purchased it in the late 1970s or 1980s.

The Brown family has a long history with the tribe. Pam Brown’s great-grandfather William H. Brown had a trading post in Big Cypress, her grandfather Frank Brown was an agent for the tribe and was friends with Josie Billie. Brown said Billie preached at her grandfather’s funeral.

Brown’s father came to Immokalee from Big Cypress and traded with the tribe for years. He even learned to speak some Elaponke. Brown lived on the property, which has a couple of houses and out buildings, for 25 years. She has been active in the community, a supporter of the Roberts Ranch and museum and wants to keep the history alive.

The family sold the land to the tribe in late 2021.

“I’m glad the Seminoles purchased the land because it is their land as far as I’m concerned,” Brown said. “I’m glad I got to share it for a little while.”

Nancy Motlow sitting in a chickee at the Indian camp property, date unknown. (Courtesy photo)
Nancy Motlow at the Indian Camp property in February 2022. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Lena Billie, in back, with two of her children Clarence and Grace Motlow at the Indian camp property sometime in the 1960s. (Courtesy photo)
A clearing in the Indian camp property in February 2022. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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