Miccosukee Chief Buffalo Tiger Walks On at 94

Former Chief of the Seminole Nation Played the US Against Cuba to Gain Tribal Recognition

By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country January 2015

A Miccosukee boy born in a chickee hut in the Florida Everglades, William Buffalo Tiger rose to become a Chief of the Micosukee Tribe, smoked cigars with Fidel Castro and Che Guevera in Cuba, and ran a successful airboat tour company in his later years. His sons Lee and Stephen Tiger formed the rock band Tiger Tiger, played Woodstock and received international press.

Born in 1919 in the Everglades, Tiger passed away on January 6, 2015. He served as the first elected tribal chairman from 1962 to 1985, and prior to that was head of the General Council from 1957. His fervent activism led to political organization of the Miccosukee and the tribe gained federal recognition in 1962 as an independent Native American tribe after first being rejected by the US. He aided the tribe in writing a constitution to govern their people.

His first language was Mikasuki, one of the Muskogee languages. He grew up surrounded by the traditional customs. In the early 20th century, the Miccosukee were considered part of the Seminole, and they maintained their relative isolation from the majority community by living within the Everglades, a swampy, humid and often dangerous area filled with alligators and snakes. The chickees were built on what dry land was available, often with just a few feet separating them from the water. They got around in shallow canoes and ate the plentiful turtles, frogs and gators. Local restaurants in the Everglades still serve the native cuisine.

When the Tamiami Trail was built through the Everglades in the 1920s and 1930s, it cut right through Seminole and Miccosukee land. The road brought tourism to the region, which provided some jobs and a market for Miccosukee crafts, but also encroached on their culture in ways many were not comfortable with. In the 1940s, the Seminole began to move into designated Indian reservations further to the north and west, but the Miccosukee stayed in the lower Everglades.

By the 1950s, the Seminole were faced with a major new challenge - in 1953 the federal government proposed to terminate them totally as a tribe, which meant a reduction in benefits.

Outraged, the majority of Seminole in Florida organized to gather their political power, and in 1957 were federally recognized as the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The process of gaining such recognition had pointed up cultural differences between the two tribes. Another dividing issue was making claims for land taken by the federal government in the 19th century; the Seminole of Oklahoma  - a band that had been relocated; and the Florida band wanted to gain compensation for lands lost, but the Miccosukee did not want to give up their claim to have the land returned.

With all these disagreements, the Seminole and Miccosukee formally separated. Led by Buffalo Tiger, the Miccosukee gained state recognition separately in 1957, and federal recognition in 1962, but not until Tiger, in an attempt to create publicity about the tribe’s efforts,  requested recognition of the Miccosukee from several nations. In a fascinating power play, the only country to respond was a newly Communist Cuba, so Tiger and Homer Osceola of the tribal council traveled to Cuba in 1959 and met with premier Fidel Castro and South American rebel Che Guevara of the new revolutionary government.

“The government wanted to pay us money to shut up,” Tiger said in an interview with The Miami Herald in 1997. “We wanted land set aside for us and to be left alone. No one in Washington would listen to us. So when [Fidel] Castro took over [in 1959], I went over there and smoked some cigars with him and Che Guevara and I asked them: ‘Do you recognize the Miccosukee Tribe?’ Castro said he did. He said that if the United States would not give us a place to live, we were welcome to go over there and he would make room for us.”

The visit of the Indians reached diplomatic heights when the Miccosukees presented Castro with a declaration written on buckskin praising his “victory over tyranny and oppression” and giving the revolutionary government formal recognition.

In return, Castro recognized, “duly constituted government of the sovereign Miccosukee Seminole nation.”

Castro in a signed document, saluted the Miccosukee leaders for “the long struggle of your Miccosukee Nation and the perseverance and courage of your indomitable and freedom-loving people...”

Miccosukee delegation with Tiger arrive in Cuba in 1959.

The Cuba venture became a pivotal issue in negotiations with the U.S. Bureau who feared having a Cuba affiliated nation within Southern Florida. Buffalo Tiger recalled, “When Castro took over Cuba, he wanted us to come over as his guests.  We went and were treated ok.  When we got back the United States said “Ok, don’t go back. Promise you won’t, and you will be Miccosukees” We needed our own power and we had to go to Cuba to get it. The government started dealing with us seriously then.”

In January 1962, 8 months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the U.S. recognized the tribe formally.

The Miccosukee preserved their traditional ways and kept distance from the majority culture. He began to represent his tribe in dealings with the European Americans. The modern world began to encroach on the Miccosukee and the Everglades with roads and railways, and he became an outspoken leader of the community.

He worked with state and federal officials to implement reforms and protect the community’s cultural and enormous natural resources. Under Chief Buffalo Tiger’s leadership, in May 1971 the Miccosukee signed a contract with the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to take over operation of the “comprehensive social and educational programs formerly run by agency bureaucrats. He took advantage of President Richard M. Nixon’s 1970 initiative of Indian self-determination.

Their several parcels of lands are known collectively as the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. Under a separate lease arrangements with the state water conservation districts, they have access and fishing and hunting rights in 200,000 acres of wetlands.

Chief Buffalo Tiger served on the Florida Governor’s Council on Indian Affairs, established in 1974 as an advisory body to the state’s chief executive. Buffalo Tiger helped bring modernity to his people, including control of their programs, economic development, and improvements to medicine and education. At the same time, Buffalo Tiger supported efforts to preserve the culture; the Miccosukee Village Museum was founded in 1983.

Tiger was opposed by some traditionalists because of failure to gain more land under tribal control and finally voted out of office in 1985. Buffalo Tiger was married three times, lived in Miami and fathered five children. One son worked as an engineer with General Motors in Detroit, and Lee and Steven Tiger led a popular rock group, Tiger Tiger, which has released several CDs. Steven Tiger passed away in 2006.

Buffalo Tiger ran a successful Everglades Airboat Tour for many decades and helped organize art and music festivals at the Village Museum.

Straddling both worlds, he heard once that he had been criticized for driving a “1983 gold-colored Cadillac.” He responded “It’s only an ‘82, but it runs pretty good.”

 




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