Rosenthal on Tiger and Jr., 'Buffalo Tiger: A Life in the Everglades'

Buffalo Tiger, Harry A. Kersey Jr. Buffalo Tiger: A Life in the Everglades. Indians of the Southeast Series. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xvii + 183 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-1317-3.

Reviewed by Nicolas Rosenthal (Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles)
Published on H-AmIndian (November, 2002)

Buffalo Tiger, the Miccosukee Tribe, and Modern American Indian History

Buffalo Tiger, the Miccosukee Tribe, and Modern American Indian History

Buffalo Tiger: A Life in the Everglades is the product of an extended collaboration between Buffalo Tiger, a Miccosukee Indian elder, and Harry A. Kersey, Jr., a member of the history faculty at Florida Atlantic University. In autobiographical style it tells Tiger's "life history," ranging from his birth in the 1920s and upbringing, to his people's increasing contact with non-Indian society in the 1930s and 1940s, through the tribal politics and the shifting government relations of the 1950s-1970s, to Tiger's retirement from public life during the 1980s. Kersey's introduction, short prefaces to each chapter, afterword, and appendix provide background and help put Tiger's prose in a larger context.

The book begins with an introductory overview of Florida Indians, tracing the eighteenth-century migration of Muskogee-Creeks to Florida and their split into two distinct groups, the Seminoles to the north and the Miccosukees in the south. The next two chapters go on to detail Miccosukee culture and society in the early decades of the twentieth century, based on Tiger's experiences and the teachings he received as a youth. Chapter 1, "A Miccosukee Childhood," describes life among the hammocks, or traditional Miccosukee camps, covering such topics as children's games and activities, agriculture, food, medicine, clothes, gender roles, place names, and terminology. Chapter 2, "My Beliefs," illustrates Miccosukee cosmology and spirituality, including a special focus on the Green Corn Dance, the center of Miccosukee religious life.

With chapter 3, "Learning the White Man's Ways," the book enters the realm of ethnohistory, describing the cultural changes and adaptations undertaken by Miccosukees in the decades leading up to World War II. During the 1910s and 1920s, Miccosukee men worked building the Tamiami Trail, a highway running through the Everglades from Tampa to Miami. After its completion, Miccosukee families established camps along the road that catered to motorists by selling arts and crafts and displaying elements of traditional Miccosukee life. Some Miccosukees bought automobiles and made trips to Miami to buy groceries and supplies, find jobs, and attend school. Tiger's own experiences mirrored these trends. Growing up, he and his family spent winters working at a tourist village; during World War II he was employed at a navy aircraft factory; and after the war he married a non-Indian woman, enrolled in night school, and settled down in Miami.

In the 1950s, Miccosukee leaders recognized encroachment on tribal lands as a threat to their culture and autonomy, necessitating more formal relations with state and federal officials. As someone with respect for Miccosukee ways and also versed in dealing with non-Indians, Tiger was chosen as a leading spokesman for the tribe. Chapter 4, "The Struggle for Recognition," chronicles Miccosukee efforts to remain a political body distinct from the Seminoles. After a highly publicized trip to Cuba, during which Tiger and other Miccosukee leaders embarrassed U.S. officials by fraternizing with Fidel Castro, the Miccosukee received federal recognition and Tiger was elected the first tribal chairman in 1962. Chapter 5, "The Miccosukee Tribe," covers Tiger's twenty-plus years at the tribe's helm, during which Tiger led the Miccosukee through a program of economic development, negotiated reservation boundaries, and established programs for tribal health care, education, and housing. Yielding to a new wave of tribal leadership in the 1980s, Tiger withdrew from politics and opened a business offering airboat tours and excursions through the Everglades.

There are many things to recommend this book. Often lost in the shadow of their Seminole neighbors, the Miccosukee have received scant attention from scholars, making Tiger and Kersey's collaboration an important contribution to Miccosukee ethnohistory. Moreover, despite concerted attention from scholars in recent years, there is still a need for work on native experiences in the twentieth century. By exploring several processes undergone by numerous other tribes over the last century--increasing contact with non-Indians, participation in the labor force, use of cities and urbanization, negotiation of termination and federal recognition, the emergence of new leaders, implementation of self-determination--this study helps to illustrate the larger trends of modern American Indian history. Finally, Buffalo Tiger presents a distinct native voice honed by eighty years of life and experiences among Indian people. Especially in chapter 6, "Our Heritage, Our Life, Our Future," Tiger makes an eloquent and poignant case for continuing to honor and respect the traditions of Miccosukee culture while adapting to contemporary American society.

There are also ways the book might have been improved. In the appendix, "Constructing a Life History," Kersey explains how individual chapters were based on audio tapes made by Tiger, then edited to clarify points, eliminate redundancies, adjust grammar, and help the narrative flow. Yet Tiger's prose remains repetitive and difficult to follow at times, with statements that are puzzling or seemingly out of context. Kersey's afterword, "The Importance of a Life," summarizes much of the book and fills in many gaps with names, dates, and places, but readers might have preferred to have this information worked into the main text. Furthermore, Kersey's efforts to place Miccosukee experiences in the larger scheme of twentieth-century American Indian history often fall short. Kersey's assertion, for example, that self-determination policy began in 1970 under the Nixon administration ignores recent scholarly work that traces the development of this trend through the 1960s. Nevertheless, Buffalo Tiger remains an important book that is both suitable as a teaching resource and provocative enough to spur further research.

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Citation: Nicolas Rosenthal. Review of Tiger, Buffalo; Jr., Harry A. Kersey, Buffalo Tiger: A Life in the Everglades. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. November, 2002.

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