Miami’s Native American Heritage and the History of the Miccosukee Tribe

  • Miami Heritage Month
  • December 1 - December 31
Miami alligator wrestling

By: Stephen Tiger

Legends of the Miccosukee give interesting explanations of their origins. One reports a people dropping from heaven into a lake in northern Florida, now called Lake Miccosukee, and swimming ashore to build a town. No early written records clarify the picture, but it is known that the Miccosukee were originally part of the Creek Nation.

The Creek Nation was an association of clan villages in the areas now known as Alabama and Georgia. This territory was separated into two sections; the Upper Creeks, who lived in the mountains and spoke Muskogee; and the Lower Creeks, who lived at the base of the mountains and spoke Hitchiti. Although the languages are closely related, they are mutually unintelligible. This hindered full communication between the two groups, who were constantly at war with each other.

The Miccosukee are from the Lower Creek region and speak Mikasuki, which is derived from Hitchiti. The Miccosukee and other Lower Creek tribes lived together in harmony. They shared legends, religious practices and social gatherings, in addition to trade and traditional stickball games. They lived by hunting, fishing and growing crops, of which corn was the most significant. The new harvest is still celebrated each year at the sacred Green Corn Dance.

The arrival of the Europeans in the 1500s placed the Creek people in the center of a three-way struggle for colonial supremacy on the southern frontier. In the 1700s the Spaniards enticed some Lower Creeks to relocate into Spanish Florida and take up lands formerly occupied by Florida’s aboriginal tribes.

The Miccosukees, who were familiar with the Florida peninsula through hunting and fishing expeditions, were among the first to arrive sometime after 1715 in an effort to escape both the encroaching whites and their Upper Creek brothers.

Complex town life soon evolved into permanent settlements established in the Apalachee Bay Region and along the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers. Families built and occupied substantial dwellings, engaged in skilled handicrafts and participated in a sophisticated social life.

Following the American Revolution, white settlers started pushing west and south, creating conflict with the Upper Creeks. These conflicts led to the Creek War of 1813 and later the so-called First Seminole War of 1818.

The Miccosukees managed to stay in the Florida Panhandle for a while, resisting the greedy settlers, American soldiers and crooked slave traders’ attacks on their towns. However, they eventually left the area to settle around Alachua, south of Gainesville and the Tampa Bay area.

In 1821, when Spain sold Florida to the United States, Americans recognized the rights of Indians over much of the land in the peninsula. In 1823, they negotiated for the land in the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. The Indian leaders who signed the treaty wanted peace. Therefore, they agreed to pull their clans back to a reservation in Central Florida, where they would be allowed to live in peace for 20 years.

By 1830, however, agitation by new American settlers led the U.S. to adapt the Indian Removal Act, which dictated that all Indians in the southeast had to move out west. This forced the Miccosukees to join the other Creek tribes in the wars known as the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842, and the Third Seminole War, which lasted from 1855 to 1858.

During these wars, the Miccosukees escaped by fighting and hiding in the Everglades. The present tribal members are descendants of some 50 people who eluded capture. To survive in this new environment, they had to adapt to living in small groups in temporary “hammock style” camps spread throughout the Everglades’ vast “river of grass.” Fishing and hunting continued to provide the main staples of their diet. However, they had to learn to harvest the native fruits of the hammocks along with the coontie and cabbage palm of higher ground. Corn, which plays the most important role in tribal customs, became very difficult to grow.

By the 1870s, identifiable Miccosukee communities began to reform. Game was abundant and there was a surplus of alligator skins, deer hides and feathers, which were traded in town for cloth, tools, guns, salt and coffee. The test to adapt without becoming assimilated persisted throughout the 1900s.

In the early 1900s, canals were cut to drain the northern and eastern Everglades for agriculture. This reduced the fish and game population drastically. Real estate booms changed Miami overnight into an expanding metropolis and the construction of the Tamiami Trail in 1928 allowed non-Indians access to the fish and game. However, the most significant change came in 1947 when the U.S. Department of Interior declared most of the tribe’s ancestral land as part of Everglades National Park.

In adapting to new ways, the Miccosukees have always managed to retain their own culture. They have kept their language, medicine and clans. Some Miccosukees even prefer to live in chickees, thatched-roof houses on stilts, instead of modern housing.

The Miccosukee Indian Village and Airboat Rides is an authentic family camp with sleeping and working chickees surrounding the cooking chickee which has a symbolic star-shaped fire. The village includes a museum, boardwalk and alligator arena. Since the early 1960s, the Miccosukees have had their own Constitution and Bylaws.

The Miccosukee Tribe is in the continuous pursuit of economic self-sufficiency and self- determination. Their goal of total independence has led to the tribe operating its own clinic, police department, court system, day-care center, senior program, Community Action Agency, educational system and other social services. These programs, along with a restaurant, gift shop, general store and service station, are located on the Tamiami Trail Reservation, forty miles west of Miami. A gaming facility and tobacco shop are located on the Krome Avenue Reservation, at the intersection of Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail and a full-service gas station and plaza are located on the Alligator Alley Reservation, west of Fort Lauderdale lying north and south of State Road 84.

Membership in the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida is open to Indians who are one-half Miccosukee Indian blood and are not enrolled members of any other tribe. The total population of the Miccosukee Service Area is 550.

The Miccosukee way is best reflected in its yellow, red, black and white flag, colors that represent the circle of life: east, north, west and south. They view the whole universe as spinning slowly in a circle like the logs of their ceremonial fire. What was, will be and will cease to be again.

About the Author:

Stephen Tiger is the Public Relations Director for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida Inc. Since 1989, he has successfully transformed the Miccosukee Indian Village and Airboat Rides into a major South Florida attraction. He served on the Board of Directors of the Florida Attractions Association and the EDA Grant Committee. His endeavors have showcased the Miccosukee tribe and the Everglades. Tiger is also an accomplished musician, singer, songwriter and author.

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