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Few Indians Attend Everglades Park Bash
By Michael James
EVERGLADES CITY - What if they held a rededication of Everglades National Park and no Indians came?
Well, when a prestigious group of politicians, environmentalists and ecology aficionados gathered in public, Dec. 4, to honor the park Harry Truman signed into protection 50 years ago, there were very few patchwork jackets in attendance.
Other than that, however, the scene could have very well been one from half a century ago. Reflected in the building facades and in the faces of the residents was the vignette of small town life. City Hall wore a fresh coat of red, white, and blue paint. Decorative bunting, replete with stars and stripes, decorated buildings and balconies all over the town. Except for the modern cars on the streets, guests could have just as easily been awaiting the arrival of President Truman instead of Vice President Al Gore - head politician and handshaker on this day.
Notable by their absence were the contingents of Miccosukees and Seminoles who usually gather en masse at events of this sort - all descendants of the region's first residents who escaped the Trail of Tears by hiding in the Everglades more than a century ago. Few, if any, in the press corps noticed the lack of a strong Indian presence, unlike the original dedication 50 years before which was well attended by Indians. In fact, Miccosukee Chairman Billy Cypress and Seminole Housing Director Joel Frank (and family) were the only Florida Indians present.
Cypress came carrying full-page newspaper advertisements the Miccosukees purchased in South Florida newspapers protesting the National Park Service's "broken promises" to Indians. He even handed one to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Frank presented a Seminole jacket to Vice President Gore and found a kindred spirit in National Park Service Director Robert Stanton "We were talking about how the Seminoles gave a safe home to the escaped slaves," said Frank. "I reminded him that slavery still exists in this country, and as long as this country is not willing to admit to the atrocities it committed against the Indians, the poor civil rights situation will not change. He agreed with me."
Lack of a proper invitation was why the Seminole Veterans' Color Guard did not attend, as many had expected, said member Stephen Bowers. "Apparently they mentioned something to Tina Osceola who mentioned it to Sally Tommie who told me they wanted us to come," said Bowers. "That's not official enough for us."
For those in attendance, however, there was plenty of activity. Park rangers, deputies, volunteers, musicians, poets, artists, and journalists scurried about making last minute preparations for the rededication ceremony. The press office was set up in the City Hall and journalists from around the world waited for word from the White House so they could receive credentials.
With all the notables - from Gov. Lawton Chiles and Sen. Bob Graham, to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw - positioning themselves on the popular "Save The Everglades" platform, it was a strongly eco-political gathering. Beleaguered U.S. Sugar Corp., headquartered in Clewiston, was there as well with a slick display touting their contributions to Everglades cleanup.
A strange 'Catch 22' arose when the buses that were to carry the journalists to the area of the dedication got caught up in the Vice President's motorcade. With only an hour left before the last admittance for journalists, the buses still had not shown up. Anxious reporters and photographers waited on word about transportation until the last minute. Finally, this reporter resigned himself to the two-mile walk from City Hall to the airpark where the ceremony was to take place.
"President Clinton and I are committed to revitalizing the Everglades," Gore said at the ceremony. "We must restore this land for all our people. That is why I am so proud to announce today the acquisition of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area totaling more than 50,000 acres."
Although the additional land is significant it is still small compared to the 1.5 million-acre national park - a fact which gripes the Miccosukees who said in their newspaper advertisement: "(T)hey crowded us onto a scant 333 acres of the 1.5 million-acre Park....two one-hundredths of one percent of our former homeland."
The ad goes on to complain that the National Park Service wants to control Miccosukee housing on even that tiny piece of Everglades. Cypress mentioned the dispute in the short remarks he made to the crowd.
Meanwhile, Gore announced the agreement in principle between the state, the Clinton Administration and the South Florida Water Management District to acquire the acreage of the former Talisman Sugar plantation. Also, the St. Joe Corp., which owns Talisman, has pledged to donate an additional 3,000 acres of their property to Everglades restoration.
In February 1996, Gore announced the latest Everglades Restoration Plan, an aggressive $1.5 billion program to restore the Florida Everglades and the South Florida ecosystem. He was honored with the Ernest F. Coe Award by Park Superintendent Richard Ring.
Before making the presentation of the award, the superintendent spoke about Coe. "He worked more than 20 years for the establishment of the park and became so committed to the park idea that he at times used his own funds to pay expenses for the park association."
While Gore was praised for his conservationist stands, the most prominent former recipient of the Coe Award was unable to attend the rededication ceremony. Author, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 107, is in frail health and rarely leaves her Coconut Grove home. However, her land mark book Everglades: River of Grass, was widely quoted by those in attendance.
Gore also paid homage to Douglas, the champion of the Everglades. In his remarks he said that 1.3 million acres of the Everglades National Park will be dedicated as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area, in honor of the legendary author and conservationist.
Renowned Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher was also in attendance, and displayed many of his famous black and white images for the enjoyment of the people in attendance. Butcher later joined the VIP's at the rededication and gave Gore a framed print.
- Charles Flowers, Dan McDonald and Peter B. Gallagher also contributed to this story.
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