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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

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 The Corps later rescinded their conclusion because of Burnett's “expressed commitment to environmental stewardship...”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.”

I asked Jane if she felt art was ‘alive’ as Betty puts it. She says that with art, “even if it’s not a language you speak, there will always be an emotional response.” A shared human trait.

One of the overseers and a collaborator with ARIE is Houston Cypress, the co-founder of Love The Everglades. He uses all forms of art to bring awareness to environmental issues and the livelihood of their people. Houston believes all should “have an understanding of how our cultural practices and beliefs are tied into the health of the environment.” He recently collaborated on a short film titled “Every Step Is A Prayer” (2021) available through NOWNESS, speaking on the interconnectedness of all living things in tandem with the earth.

Also available for viewing, is his short film ...what endures… (2021), an interfaith dialogue between Houston and local artist Sister Robin Haines Merrill. They share the joy and appreciation in understanding the earth as a living being, deserving of our awareness, through poetry and choreography. In his poetry, Houston writes:

“The medicine man knew all about the circle of life. How to stay in harmony with the dance of the universe.”

Defending the sacred is about giving back as much as we can to the land and those who protect it as reparations for the exploitative relationships we already have with the earth. Houston made the point of asking “How can we share the joys of our gardens?” He continues, explaining how sharing curriculum, foods, or the ways we care for our children will close the gaps between us and our natural purpose as stewards of the land.

This deeper understanding of the territories we inhabit “cultivates compassion because we start to appreciate what is beyond us and all the beautiful things we are benefited by.”

There is an emotional, spiritual and environmental disconnect between the average South Floridian and this land when there should be a sense of kinship. Our first and largest national park, the heart of the state, the provider of drinking water for two-thirds of all Floridians and irrigation for much of the state's agriculture goes unfelt, unappreciated.

Oil-drilling in the Big Cypress Preserve will have detrimental consequences for generations to come due to the continuous fracturing of these habitats. Now, in the wet season through summer, some vegetation has grown back, but the effects of Burnett's last exploration can still be seen in the massive soil ruts, and the chilling absence of wildlife.

Central to the path toward healing the Everglades is unifying water sources and allowing the waterways to fall back into a south-flowing stream. The Everglades is Florida's natural filter, with water flowing from Lake Okeechobee through its nutrient-rich soil and into the Biscayne Aquifer sitting directly beneath it. It is fair to say we drink Everglades water everytime we drink tap water.

Interrupting the necessary flows by building roads and poisoning the delicate ecosystems with oil exploration has already proven damaging. According to the Everglades Foundation, there is as much as 50% less of the pure filtered water that we all rely on in South Florida.

The tribes who live on reservations in the Everglades will be the first to be burdened with the consequences. But the rest of us are just as vulnerable to the harmful effects of ignoring the warnings from native populations.

I left the walk with a deeper understanding of how the abuses we infringe upon our ecosystems are abuses we do unto ourselves. The land, with all its life-sustaining forces, is an extension of ourselves. The more we can love the land the more we can love each other, and through art we are given the tools to communicate with one another on what that could look like.

Betty Osceola guided me through a meditation recently when revisiting the preserve. On a small patch of grass between the entrance of the trail and the busy I-75 we connected with our mother Earth and felt her breath bridge all gaps of unfamiliarity between animate and inanimate. I listened deeply to the grass swaying and the bugs crawling in one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Betty interpreted Earth’s response, saying our mother was happy and she said thank you.

If you feel a stranger to this land, I implore you to lay outside with the soles of your feet and your palms touching the ground. Visualise the breath of life that flows through the ecosystems around you. Visit the Everglades and meet Houston for an airboat ride or any of the other locals who offer tours. Place a face to the name and find yourself in them.


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