By Jeff Klinkenberg

John Tigertail wants to show me his Everglades. He hands me ear protectors, punches a button, and his airboat engine roars to life. We skim across the river of grass in water inches deep and see his great blue herons, his white ibis and his alligators.

He taps me on the shoulder and I uncover my ears. “Look over there,’’ he shouts. A snail kite, among the world’s rarest birds of prey, is sitting on a rickety nest perched on dead grass. He considers the snail kite as much his as the rest of the Miccosukee Everglades. “It’s our place,’’ he tells me. “We take care of it.”

He grew up here. His people, known as the Miccosukee, have lived in the Miccosukee Everglades for a century and a half. John Tigertail gives airboat tours of the Everglades like his father and grandfather once did. His great grandfather, Charley Tigertail, traded frogs legs and furs to white settlers in the late 19th century. In the pre-road Everglades, before airboats, Miccosukees got around in canoes hewn from cypress trees.

Here’s a little history: By the 18th century, virtually all of the original Floridians were gone, killed off by diseases and war. Into Florida came surviving Indian people from the South -- the Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws. They were collectively known as Seminoles, meaning “the free people” or “the runaways’’ by the Spanish. In the 19th century, the Seminoles fought three wars with the United States and never surrendered. The branch of the Seminoles who called themselves Miccosukees settled in the Everglades. In the 21st century, visitors who drive across the Tamiami Trail pass through their reservation.

They’re a traditional people. John Tigertail, still a young man, may watch television and communicate by email – but he also speaks the Miccosukee language and attends the sacred Green Corn Dance in the spring that keeps alive his culture.

His late Uncle Pete Osceola was a medicine man. As a boy, Pete took John by airboat into the Glades to the hidden island where his grandmother, Lina Tigertail, lived in isolation. When her grandson was sick, she could heal him with plants. If the boy was hungry, she fed him roasted garfish or snapping turtle stew. She died when she was 112.

Piloting his airboat deeper into the Everglades, John Tigertail points to an island of cypress trees ahead. “My camp,’’ he tells me. At the dock, he suddenly starts grunting. An unseen alligator, hiding in the thick weeds, grunts back a greeting. “My grandmother,’’ he says with a smile, “taught me how to talk alligator.’’

John Tigertail grew up here. His people, known as the Miccosukee, have lived in the Miccosukee Everglades for a century and a half.

Strolling around the island, he shows his hogs and turtles and alligators. “My grandmother,’’ he says with a smile, “taught me how to talk alligator.’’ They were sick and hurt when he found them. When they are healthy, he plans to release them.

“This is the life I know,’’ he says. “This is my world.’’ When his great grandfather came to the Everglades, skies were black at night except for the countless stars that burned like lasers. Now from his camp he can see the glow of Miami. Traffic rumbles past on the highway. Sometimes you hear horns honking and the boompy boom of heavily amped music.

But some things haven’t changed. Most nights he can listen to frogs perform their opera. And when the gators grunt, he grunts right back at them and remembers his grandmother.

When you go…

Tigertail Airboat Tours
US-41, Miami, FL 33184
Located on the Miccosukee reservation, 16 miles west of Miccosukee Gaming on Tamiami Trail or approximately one mile east of Shark Valley Visitors Center.
(786) 404-1139 or  305) 439-2745


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