email a friend iconprinter friendly iconTribal Lands
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For tribal members, the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades are rare relics of the very earth that once saved them from genocide. When the Spanish first landed in Florida during the expedition of Juan Ponce de León in 1513, the area was home to 250,000 natives, whom the Spanish came to call cimarrones, meaning "wild ones." By the 18th century the Indians were known as the Seminole, and they stuck like a fish bone in the throat of American might. In 1819 the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain for five million dollars, then dropped more than $30 million on the Seminole Wars. When the gore ended, about 4,000 had been exiled to what is now Oklahoma, and maybe 300 remained hiding in the swamp. For most of the 20th century their descendants eked out a living as tourist attractions around Miami or in the Everglades, wrestling alligators, performing dances, and making trinkets for visitors.

The big turnaround came in 1988, when Indian gambling was sanctioned. Today every man, woman, and child in the tribe of 3,500 members receives a healthy percentage of casino profits. In December 2006 the tribe cut a $965-million deal that bought up almost all of the Hard Rock Cafes and casinos in the world.

This prosperity is allowing them to save a fragment of the Big Cypress that was never developed because it was unsuitable for agriculture; citrus groves, cattle farms, and vegetable fields cover the rest of the reservation. "That means bringing back more of the animals, giving it the traditional look of the land," says Brian Zepeda, director of Florida Seminole Tourism. "The cypress trees were once so large and dense they formed like a fort created by nature."

Zepeda leads the way through the swamp, carrying a machete to help clear a path. Sabal palms, pop ashes, and willows share the space with the cypresses. It is early in the dry season, and the ground underfoot feels firm, though it buckles in the low, wet spots. Deer dart on the edge of the forest, and a remnant of the endangered Florida panthers—maybe 20 of a possible state population of a hundred—holds out on the Big Cypress Reservation.

Wild sour oranges, introduced by the Spaniards, persist as well. The Seminoles roast them to bring out their sweetness. In one part of the reservation that's under restoration is a raised spot in the marsh, a former settlement where natives hid from soldiers in the safety of trees at the end of the last Seminole War.

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