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How cultural practices, beliefs, and rights of indigenous people are tied to the health of the environment and why you should help protect them

By Anjuli Castano

On a Saturday April morning, I joined activists, scientists, and nature lovers at a trailhead off Alligator Alley (I-75 highway). About 30 people stood in a circle at the southern entrance of the trail, in a prayer led by Betty Osceola, The Miccosukee elder who organized the walk.

The plan of action was to walk four miles in and back down a pathway of wet prairies covered in dwarf cypresses and sawgrass. The trail had been flattened by Burnett Oil’s investigations of the Big Cypress Preserve. We were there to learn about Burnett's proposed plan to expand their oil exploration and see one of the expected drilling sites.

Walking through the tall sawgrass, I felt the natural cooling effects of a green space. I witnessed pollinators dance from flower to flower fulfilling their duties. The soil was rich and inviting, asking us to feel its nutrients. I obliged, taking my shoes off to let the earth squish through my toes and kiss my blisters.

I felt free and protected, the way you’d want to feel in your home. That is the role of an ecosystem, to be the home of all the independent abiotic and biotic life which build the harmony needed for all to live in health.

Yet, those who call the Everglades their home do not feel free or protected.

On January 22, the Texan oil developers sent in four applications to expand their oil-drilling sites with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection -- just five days before President Biden signed an executive order pausing oil exploration on public land.

Their first interactions with the preserve though, were in March of 2017 when they ran through 200 miles -- the distance of Miami to Orlando -- of sawgrass, marshes, and cypress forests in war-like vehicles causing “mechanized land clearing, ditching and channelization,” according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Plowing down the homes of snakes, birds and crawfish, they left only a dried vastness of depressed soil. The Corps later rescinded their conclusion because of Burnett's “expressed commitment to environmental stewardship...”

Burnett’s upper hand in this battle comes from the Big Cypress ‘split estate’ status, meaning the surface is owned by the federal government -- and protected as a preserve -- while the underground minerals ‘belong’ to Collier Resource Company, giving them the right to lease the land to Burnett Oil.

The law of man may treat the earth as property, like an antique pocket watch or a painting, which can be stolen or fought over. But you cannot divide the ground from its minerals nor can you divide the sea from its shore. The Collier empire holds the legal rights to violate the land and still, all they do not own on that land inevitably becomes collateral damage.

The Big Cypress Preserve and the Everglades, as a whole, are a home to many indigenous populations. The wood storks, panthers, and mangroves all serve a purpose in regulating and continuing the systems of life there, which are interconnected with the systems of life in urban areas. The city may feel detached from nature but it’s not.

Ownership of the land, which makes us feel as though we are more valuable than it, does not allow for a relationship of reciprocity. The Miccosukee and Seminole peoples live and tend to these lands but they do not demand ownership, they demand respect. To fulfill the demand for respect, you cannot consider the land an inanimate object but as a moving, living being.

Betty Osceola, who sits on the Everglades Advisory Committee, shared with me the wisdom that was passed down to her from her elders:

“We are the two-legged manifestation of the earth; in indigenous teachings it is all about we.”

The same we insists “the elements are nothing without the humans who are meant to be part of the whole.” Just like how humans are nothing without the earth.

“We all come from and embody the land. Learning how to respect the land is essentially learning how to respect ourselves,” she continued, expressing the ties between people and their environment.

“When you are speaking to the tribes, environmental issues are social justice issues because we live out here. There are a lot of decisions made that impact our daily lives, made by individuals who don’t exist out here.”

If we are not listening to those who live in and with the Everglades, how are we meant to love and care for the Everglades?

At the end of the walk, we sat near a proposed drilling site among splintered logs -- ashy, white shards that used to be cypresses. We all gathered and rested. Betty steered the conversation and offered herself up to answer questions.

The question which prompted me to write this piece came from a young woman:

“What is the best way to help?”

With little hesitation, Betty responded, “Art.”

When I asked her why she felt art was the most effective tool for advocacy, she expressed how “The feelings of the artist are transmutable because the art is alive. When an artist is creating, there are a lot of feelings put into it and those feelings live through the art.” Politics and bureaucracy work through a “dead system” which only promotes exclusivity. Art conveys the human experience, giving safe space for even the most divided groups to relate.

Art is free to experience, publicly or privately; it's a medium of communication with the creator that doesn't actually require a dialogue. It can simply be felt and contemplated in isolation. Politics create a hierarchy of systems not to be felt but to survive through. The freedom that art brings empowers community care and disciplined organizing so conversations of respect and responsibility begin. In systems of punishment and oppression, we see endless cycles of violence.

I spoke with Jane Thayer, the program manager at AIRIE, Artists In Residence In Everglades. For 30 days they provide housing to one artist and immerse them in all things Everglades. This year they celebrate 20 years of coupling artists, scientists, and native stewards to build bridges of understanding.

Jane shared that AIRIE's mission is to help artists become interpreters of what they learn in the Everglades and relate it to the public, “being able to communicate specific issues but also build awareness about it in general. You link people to a desire in stewardmanship.”

“In order for there to be success in an environmental movement there needs to be equity and diversity,” Jane continues. “We’re working on bridging the gap between science and art, using artists as communicators.”