THE VILLAGE POST
“THE ONE-MAN INDIAN WAR…OF MORTON SILVER”
Morton Silver, Miami attorney, spent ten years of his life trying to give Florida back to the Indians. On his advice, the Miccosukee claimed the center of the state from Gainesville to Okeechobee under the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek, later ratified by the U.S. Senate. Land south of Okeechobee was claimed under an 1839 agreement with Major General Alexander Macomb, then Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army.
Could Miami and other major cities possibly fall to the insurgent Miccosukee? Silver thought not. Eventually, he urged modification of the demand to 140,000 swamp acres west of Miami.
From 1953 to 1962 the battle raged. Modern weapons were used. Weapons like publicity. The Indians made good copy when they threatened to enlist the military aid of their old allies – Spain, France and Britain; to present their case before the United Nations; to borrow $100 million from the World Bank for legal aid in going to the World Court with their problems; and even to found with brother tribes up north a United Indian Republic.
But these tactics, it seems, split the Miccosukee themselves. Silver and the Osceola family were hell bent for leather when the Tiger family reined in. “We don’t want to be enemies with the United States,” Buffalo Tiger says today. “We just wanted something done for the Indian people.”
”We went to the Department of the Interior. They told us they would send a man down here to see what group of Indians qualified to work with the United States. Reg Miller was the first agent of the Miccosukee. He said we would have to be organized in a certain way. We called an election in 1961. The Indian people voted and adopted a constitution.”
Silver believes only a handful of Miccosukee voted in this election and that other Indian voters were “borrowed” from the Dania Reservation. Further, he says the government had already recognized the Miccosukee on January 27, 1958.
Nonetheless, the government calls Tiger’s reorganization legal. “The constitution meant that the Miccosukee were a body politic with which the government could deal,” states the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which started a program for the Miccosukee in 1962. They found Indian homes called chickees (built by four or more poles in the ground, roofed with palm fronds) were without sanitation facilities.
They opened the first school for the Miccosukee. And tackling the Indians’ economic problem, they loaned money for the Miccosukee Restaurant on U.S. 41 and the Tamiami Trail. In Silver’s eyes this isn’t as good as it looks. “Buffalo was willing to take a 50 year lease rather than 140.000 acres,” is his judgement.
But Buffalo Tiger says the land claim is still pending. “The Miccosukee want land rights recognized by the United States. Land is better than money. You can always live on it, hunt on it, farm it.”
Ways of granting land to the Indians are too knotty to unsnarl here. Suffice it to say there are circumstances under which Congress can cede government-owned land to the Indians. Also, the state can give state-owned land to the government to be given to the Indians. “See your congressman” is the proper approach.
Otherwise, redress can be sought via the Indian Claims Commission. Founded in 1946, this commission settles claims with money only. Hundreds of their recommendations (based on land value of the date of treaty or conclusion period) have been approved by Congress.
Such a money claim was filed years ago in the name of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. A whopping claim it was, too, $350 million. Today, the Claims Commission admits the Seminoles have a case, adding that all Indians of Florida, including the Miccosukee and the Seminoles of Oklahoma (that’s ANOTHER story) would benefit if and when the matter is finally closed.
In the past, the Miccosukee shunned this Seminole claim for two reasons. First, the “land instead of money” rationale. Going the money route, said Silver, “they might end up with 10 million. Then the government would deduct benefits like agents salaries, attorney’s fees, and when you wind up, each Indian has $100 in his pocket.” Secondly the Miccosukee didn’t want to be lumped in with the Seminoles. “In the course of negotiations, it became clear that the Miccosukee were a separate tribal entity,” Silver recalled.
”After library research, I found there was not just one Indian tribe in Florida but two basic tribes who spoke different languages, had different cultures, lived in different areas. Originally, the Indians around Okeechobee were the Muskogee, descendants of those Indians who migrated to Florida in 1790 when the school books tell you the Seminoles came to Florida.
”The Miccosukee had lived around Tallahassee near a lake named after them. All early military reports from the Spanish, French and English describe the Miccosukee as the most fierce, warlike tribe in America. They gave the fierce meaning to the word Seminole.”
Seminole, according to Silver, is a Creek word. “They say it meant ‘runaway’. But the word in Indian language means something that’s free. An adjective, not a noun. For instance, if an animal is captured and it escapes, they call it ‘semionolee’.” (The double ‘e’ has been dropped over the years.)
The term came to be applied to Florida Indians by Georgia slave-holders who fought the tribes to retrieve escaped slaves. Silver goes so far as to say the Seminole wars were fought principally over slavery not land “The Muskogee harbored slaves,” he said. “It’s evident in their blood line. Slaves escaped from Georgia and lived in little encampments near the Muskogee. They lived their own lives but worked for the Indians.
”During the Seminole wars, they fought dressed as Indians. Some generals attributed most of the agitation to the slaves. Finally, the Muskogee couldn’t go it alone. They called on the Miccosukee for help. They joined against a common danger.”
The Miccosukee name lived until the Seminole wars when the white man began calling all Florida Indians Seminole. Silver feels, “They can acknowledge ‘North American’ for the white man which can include a Canadian or a U.S. citizen.”
He has an interesting theory about the origin of the Miccosukee. “Ever since the white man came to this hemisphere, the Miccosukee lived around the Tallahassee area. They were aboriginal to Florida. There is a striking resemblance between these Indians and the Mayans in Guatemala and Central America, where I’ve traveled. I’m personally convinced that’s where they come from.”
What does the future hold for this small, independent tribe? Silver fears their land hopes will be dashed. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a hopeless case. I don’t think either the government or the Indians will settle in a realistic manner.
”The Indians will keep floating around. A certain percentage do come into cities. You’ve seen them working in parking lots, or at Musa Isle. But most of them don’t come in. I don’t know whether they don’t want to, or whether there’s no place for them. I do know they’re endeavoring to retain their culture.
”Churches and Indian agents are trying to get them to assimilate. With the Negro the word is integrate, with the Indian assimilate. The Negro wants to integrate and the white man doesn’t want him to. The Indian doesn’t want to assimilate but the white man wants him to.”
Silver, who practices civil law, and recently was appointed a municipal judge in West Miami, looks back on his personal “Indian war” with some misgivings “All I got out of it was a bad experience with Indians and with our government. If our government operates elsewhere as here, God help us.”
His sense of humor hasn’t deserted him, however. He told us that his wife Rose, is part Choctaw Indian. “You wouldn’t know it to look at her. She looks Irish.” But during the land claim fight, he concluded wryly, “The Indian Bureau was convinced it was all a Choctaw conspiracy.”