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How Florida's Native Americans Predicted and Survived Hurricanes

Betty Osceola, a member of the Miccosukee tribe and Panther clan, shared several stories about her family's own experiences dealing with hurricanes and tornadoes in South Florida

How Florida's Native Americans Predicted and Survived Hurricanes

By Michael Sainato


Osceola drove the point that Native Americans' experiences and responses to hurricanes and other natural disasters stem from a deep connection and reverence for nature, one that is severely lacking in modern society. She wrote, "Our ancestors the Seminole and Miccosukee were taught not to fear the Hurricane. The generations of our people today need to remember and to share the stories with our younger generations so they too will respect and love the natural world."

In the 1700's, American colonists had displaced Native American tribes from their homeland in northern Florida, and southern Georgia, pushing the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes to South Florida. The Seminole Wars raged on in the 1800's as they fought back against President Andrew Jackson's genocidal efforts to relocate Native Americans to territory west of the Mississippi River, and Native Americans ultimately sought refuge in the swamps of South Florida to avoid being attacked by white Americans. Living in Florida, the native Americans developed the knowledge and foresight to anticipate hurricanes and protect themselves from them.

In the book, The Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, William Nealy noted that sawgrass blooming tipped off Native Americans in Florida that a hurricane was coming; "they believed that only an atmospheric condition such as a major hurricane would cause the pollen to bloom on the sawgrass several days before a hurricane's arrival." Upon the sawgrass tipping off the Native Americans, they would leave the Everglades for ground inland and use the palms from Saw Palmetto plants to construct tunnels for shelter.

In response to Hurricane Irma, Betty Osceola, a member of the Miccosukee tribe and Panther clan, shared several stories on Facebook regarding her family members' historical experiences with hurricanes and tornadoes in South Florida.

"Many years ago when my husband's late father was a young boy about 10 years old their family was out in the Everglades at a gathering on one of the tree islands," she wrote in one post. "The elders looked at the sky and knew a 'Big Wind' was coming. As time progressed it started getting windy. They had all traveled by dug out canoe and it was too late for them to travel elsewhere, so they were told they were going to stay in place. His father remembered the men dragging the canoes up on to the island and securing the gathering grounds. He remembered the chickee hut they were staying in, the men brought down the legs down so the roof landed on the ground. They crawled under the roof and huddled covered from the elements. They heard the winds howling and felt the winds as they passed thru the leaves of the roof. They could hear the trees crashing to the ground. He remembered them being worried one would fall on them. It was many hours before the hurricane passed. When the winds and rain finally passed they came out of their shelters. And for as far as they could see the land looked clear for the winds had flattened the landscape." She added that one man went out hunting and was caught in the hurricane, forced to take solace under his dug out canoe. "Before the storm he told them he couldn't find any game, there were no animals anywhere were in sight. But after the storm as he started making his way back to the tree island that the people were gathering, he saw animals out. He was able to get a deer and some birds and brought them back to the people," Osceola continued. "In the earlier days our people may not of had much in other people's eyes, but when you hear the elders stories you know differently. They had the knowledge and connection to the land to care for themselves and their people. Creator kept them safe and as in this story provided them with nourishment after the lands were washed."

She shared her mother's story, who was raised by her own grandparents in line with tradition so that ancestral knowledge is passed down, in which her mother was caught in a hurricane in a chickee hut with her grandparents, and everyone had to grab poles in the hut and tie themselves with rope to them to hold the hut together as the rain and wind from the hurricane pelted them until the storm passed.

As much of Florida faced tornado warnings due to Hurricane Irma, Osceola shared another story in regards to her mother's encounter with a tornado. "When my late mom was growing up it was during a time when our people still freely traveled and lived in various parts of Florida, "she wrote. "During her childhood much of Florida was undeveloped so our people traveled and set up temporary camps thru out and they were able to travel to and from these camps depending on the seasons. Many of our people rarely encountered other people of different cultures. Florida was still 'wild.' Late Mom told us about this one time they were traveling across the Everglades in their dug out canoe," she continued. "She remembered this one time when she was a little girl, they were traveling across the Everglades in the canoe. As anyone in Florida knows, it can be sunny one minute and then out of no where you can get a bad storm especially during summer months. Well there they were poling across the Everglades, the sky was all clear, then when out of know where the storm clouds started forming quickly, and the air suddenly got cold, then it started raining. Grandpa started quickly poling the canoe towards a Tree Island. Grandpa saw the clouds and saw the Tornado forming. He beached the canoe up on the Tree Island, and made them get out. He flipped the canoe over, then he lifted one side up far enough for them to get under the canoe. As they were under the canoe the rain got harder and it got windy. Mom remembered water coming in under the canoe and bugs crawling on them. As quickly as the rain and wind came it went. Grandpa with their help pushed the canoe back over and back into the water. Where they could continue on their way home. The canoe and her grandfather's quick thinking protected them."

Osceola also shared her own story from experiencing Hurricane Andrew in 1992. With her husband and two young children, Florida residents berated them to leave their camp in the Everglades. In contrast to Miami, she cited that the destruction was minimal as there wasn't much development within Native American territory, compared to Miami that was devastated. "It seemed like almost every non-Indian and their grandma kept coming to the camp to try to get us to go to a shelter. We didn't have electricity or running water, no air conditioning, no refrigerator, and we have little kids we were told and we should think of the kids and should go some place safe," Osceola said. "What these well intentioned people didn't realize, the conditions they saw was our reality before Andrew and was still our reality after Andrew. They didn't know what they were seeing was our normal way of life. What they thought they were seeing was us having loss of basic necessities as a result of Andrew. Nothing changed for us. I am thankful for that. We lived in an area if needed we could hunt and fish. We had a way to get food, we had a hand pump water well. We had firewood to cook with. Our chickees we're still standing. We were okay. We were self reliant. And we still are."

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