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Manatees were once important Seminole food source

Recalling his younger years, Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger puts it bluntly: “We were some poor people just trying to stay alive.”

The time he speaks of wasn’t really that long ago either.

This archival image shows Seminoles using the manatee for sustenance. (Florida State Archives)

Councilman Tiger said even though the Seminole Tribe’s economic situation has clearly transformed in recent years, poverty was significant from before federal recognition in 1957 through the late 1990s.

He recently thought back on his years as a youth in the 1960s, and how he helped put food on the table by hunting and fishing. One source of food at the time was the manatee. He remembers how important the aquatic mammal was to sustain life.

“When you found a manatee, it was a blessing in disguise,” Councilman Tiger said. “You could live on the amount of meat it provided for weeks. They were part of our diet.”

Preservation was tough without refrigeration, however, he said.

“It’s fatty, like beef. We would fry it or grill or boil it. If you could, you’d dehydrate it under the chickees and smoke it,” Councilman Tiger said.

Manatee hides were also sold for coffee, sugar and salt. Some of the bones were used for traditional purposes, he said.

“I believe they blessed the carcass, giving thanks back. It was a means of survival back then,” Councilman Tiger said.

Struggle of the ‘sea cow’

Manatees have been traced in the fossil record to 50 million years ago. They can be found in both saltwater and freshwater habitats.

Weighing 1,000 pounds or more, the “gentle giant” is symbolic of Florida and a draw for tourists. Manatees first appeared in the shallow bays and rivers of the state about 15 million years ago, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Populations dwindled over the years, not because the Seminoles hunted them for food, but because of fishery conflicts, habitat loss and boat collisions. Most recently the toxic red tide plaguing much of Florida’s Gulf Coast killed scores of the “sea cows” – a nickname that comes from their diet of seagrasses and other aquatic plants.

In order to combat this, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was put into place to help protect the manatee. Due to overall improvements in numbers and habitat, the manatee moved from an endangered status to a downgraded threatened status in 2016.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service think the Florida manatee (a subspecies of the West Indian manatee) number about 6,300. Aerial surveys in 1991 put the number at about 1,300.

‘Manatee Mania’

Lindsey Gilbert Hinnrichs, the historical resources program assistant for the Citrus County board of county commissioners at the Old Courthouse Heritage Museum in Inverness, recently organized a new exhibition focused on the manatee.

“Manatee Mania” runs through May at the museum.

Hinnrichs said it wasn’t just the Seminole Tribe that historically used the manatee for food, but “all people in Florida.”

The exhibition includes a “Coffee and Conversation” speaker series – one features Janie Gould on April 7 at 7 p.m.

Gould reinforces Hinnrichs point in her presentation: “When Manatees Were Sea Cows: How Floridians Coped When Times Were Hard.”

The presentation explores how Floridians resorted to inventive ways to put food on the table and survive during the Great Depression and the years following that era.

“Needless to say the menu could be more than a little creative in tough times,” Gould states in her presentation description.

It’s the first time the museum has done an exhibition on manatees. It was made possible with a $5,000 grant from the Florida Humanities Council.

The Historical Society has erected several educational panels. There’s a display of manatee bones, too.

Ongoing environmental concerns

Hinnrichs said that while the manatee population is doing well in Citrus County despite the recent red tide outbreak, water quality throughout Florida remains an issue.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Councilman Tiger and others who want to see the manatee return to areas where they used to be. They want to see those natural habitats restored and a recovery of the Everglades to its former swampier state. A wetter Everglades could not only bring the manatee back, but other wildlife as well.

“When the Everglades were flooded, there were natural ponds and hammocks where you’d see the manatees,” Councilman Tiger said.

An Everglade hammock is comprised of stands of trees, usually hardwood, that form an ecological island on an elevated area (just a few inches high) surrounded by wetlands.

Councilman Tiger said those former wetlands, including in Big Cypress, aren’t wet enough to support the manatees.

“When the South Florida Flood Control and the U.S. Army [Corps of Engineers] started digging canals, most [manatees] went down the canals or perished,” Councilman Tiger said.

He said that was at least 40 years ago, and they haven’t returned.

“It’s sad; I used to see them south of the [First] Baptist Church in the deepest part of the Everglades. You’d have to get in a canoe to find these things in culverts from one side to the other,” he said.

This photo of a manatee is on display at the museum exhibit. (Jimmy White Photography)

Councilman Tiger said overall environmental degradation has affected fish, deer and vegetation, too.

He said the size of bass caught today is very different than years ago. “The bass were huge,” he said. “They’d feed a family for three to four days.”

Councilman Tiger said the Tribe works with local municipalities to find restoration solutions so the hammocks and cypress trees start growing the way they used to.

“The way of life as it used to be has really, really changed. We need to restore the Everglades and need a lot more help from the state and governor. We need to clean the water quite a bit,” he said.

Councilman Tiger said he remembers seeing the wood duck nearly everywhere on the Big Cypress Reservation – living in the holes in cypress trees. He notices a high number of cypress trees dying from the inside out now.

“We had swamp apples and natural flooding zones that brought the ducks and the geese. Come winter, ducks don’t come this far anymore. It’s too dry,” he said. “I’d be glad to see [wildlife return and the wetlands restored] so my grandkids can have the experience and get to see all the exotic birds.”

Councilman Tiger said one of the most shocking effects of the drying of the Everglades is the erosion of topsoil.

“The topsoil used to be so thick. It supported very plentiful food for wildlife. Now when we get high winds, it takes it off. You’ve lost it,” he said. “It’s going to turn into sugar sand. We’re on thin ice right now and it’s kind of scary.”

If you go

Manatees are like many of Florida’s residents: they like warmth. So when things get a bit chilly – at least by Florida standards – they head to many of the state’s freshwater springs where temperatures are often a constant 70 to 72 degrees. (That might seem cool to humans, but it’s warm for the manatees).

The Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River is known as one of the best places in the state to see the mammal. During Florida’s winter months they come in the hundreds.

You can kayak or take a boat tour if you want to get up close and personal.

To reserve a free seat for Gould’s lecture, call the Citrus County Historical Society at (352) 341-6428 or go online to cchistoricalsocietyshop.com and click on “Free Event Registration.”

The manatee exhibition is located at One Courthouse Square in Inverness – about 18 miles from Crystal River.

More information can be found at citruscountyhistoricalsociety.org and threesistersspringsvisitor.org.

 

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.

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