nlike most bass fishermen, George Billie is not obsessed with bait. He doesn't know from plastic worms, rubber frogs, jigs, pork rinds or plugs. When Billie wants a bass, he walks to a nearby canal and impales one with a spear that is 12 feet long and looks like the devil's pitchfork.
"When I see the fish, I get him pretty good," said Billie, a 55-year-old Miccosukee Indian who lives in a thatched hut in the Everglades and earns his living wrestling alligators.
More than 300 Miccosukee live in the Everglades on a thin strip of land just inside the northern boundary of the national park. They hunt and fish the sawgrass and hardwood hummocks much as their ancestors did 120 years ago when they fled into the most inaccessible, mosquito-ridden parts of the Everglades to escape soldiers and bounty hunters intent on capturing or killing every Indian in Florida.
"The Everglades are the only reason we are still here," said Lee Tiger, the 32-year-old son of Miccosukee chief Buffalo Tiger. "We had to be very good hunters and very good scouts to stay alive."
For much of the 19th century, the Miccosukee survived by avoiding the white man. Now, a good part of their livelihood depends upon attracting them to the restaurant and tourist pavilion they have built beside the Tamiami Trail, a road that runs from Miami on the east coast to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, through the heart of the Everglades.
The main attraction is an exhibition village where Miccosukee women demonstrate traditional crafts and Billie wrestles alligators four or five times a day.
While most of the Miccosukee now live in suburban-style homes and drive to Miami for their groceries, there are a few like Billie who live the old way.
His home is a chickee, an open-sided structure of cypress poles and palmetto fronds 16 feet long and 9 feet wide. He sleeps on a wooden platform, raised above the ground as protection against snakes. He cooks the food that he catches on an open fire of cypress logs.
The tribe still has medicine men and ceremonies like the Green Corn Dance, a celebration of the earth's bounty, and secret initiation rites for 13-year-old males. But Billie said some of the old customs are losing their hold and that the tribe is influenced by a white world it is now dependent upon.
"We can't avoid the white man's world any more," said Lee Tiger. "The game and fish in the Everglades have been reduced too much by water management programs. We are trying to find a way to balance our traditional culture with the culture of modern man."
No one personifies the changing ways more than Tiger. He grew up in a Miami suburb, attended public schools and left home at 18 to play in a rock band in New York City and Los Angeles. He returned in 1974 and now handles public relations for the tribe by day and plays in his rock band--Tiger, Tiger--at night.
His brother, Stephen, an exceptional painter, is also in the band. Both are married and live off the reservation.
The Miccosukee are not native to Florida. Indigenous tribes like the Calusa, Tequesta, Timucuan and Apalachee disappeared during the 18th century because of diseases contracted from early Spanish explorers.
The Miccosukee were pushed into Florida, along with the Seminoles, from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas by white settlers and soldiers early in the 19th century. By 1858, after three Seminole wars, there were only a few hundred Indians still in Florida.
It is no small irony that just 13 years earlier, President James K. Polk issued an executive order granting one-fifth of the state to the Miccosukee.
Last month, the Miccosukee finally gained a measure of justice. Congress settled their 137-year-old land claim by them 190,000 acres at no cost and awarding the tribe $975,000.
Most of that money will go toward development programs, said Lee. Each member of the tribe will receive $100 in cash.
"When you consider all the wars and tears," said Lee, "that's not a lot of money."