Since the 1800s, the Miccosukee Tribe has lived in the Florida Everglades - first seeking refuge from colonizing forces, but in the process, forming a deep connection with the land and water of the area . Today, the cultural traditions of the tribe remain connected to the health of the Everglades ecosystem. However, Miccosukee lands now face pollution from agriculture, urban development, and industrialism, with specific concerns about water pollution [1; 2]. The Miccosukee people continue to fight forces that seek to threaten their cultural practices, through protest but also judicial activism to battle lax water quality standards. Throughout the last three decades, the Miccosukee Tribe has fought for environmental justice by preventing co-optation of their land and water rights and protesting the maldistribution of polluted water into their community.
There are two main areas of concern, the land in the Miccosukee Tribe’s Federal Indian Reservation (lands held in trust by the federal government), and lands provided to the Tribe under a perpetual lease from the State of Florida, also known as Water Conservation Area 3A (WCA-3A). When the Miccosukee Tribe was recognized by the federal government decades ago, they were given a total of 90,000 acres of land . The WCA-3A lands were leased to the Tribe in perpetuity in 1982 with the goal to preserve the local ecosystem to protect the Tribe’s cultural rights . Although this land is not an Indian Reservation, the agreement states that the area is leased to the tribe as if it were an Indian Reservation . Put together, the tribe has control of over 270,818 acres .
Much of Miccosukee Tribal land is located in the Everglades – a large network of ecosystems where the natural flow of water has now been disrupted. Instead of one flowing ecosystem, the Everglades is now more of a network of compartmentalized reservoirs and canals – the result of large scale engineering projects. The Miccosukee Tribe relies on the integrity of the Everglades ecosystem to support their religion, culture and economic prosperity.
In the early 2000s, the South Florida Water Management District began back-pumping polluted water into the greater Everglades ecosystem. The water was pumped from an affluent housing development, urban areas and agricultural lands into tribal waters [4;8]. A prime example of environmental injustice – dumping polluted water into an area for the benefit of others, at the expense of a historically marginalized community. The polluted water began to cause eutrophication and overgrowth of cattails, forcing out native grasses and vegetation . Because of the harm the water pollution is causing towards the ecosystem, the hunting and fishing rights granted to the Miccosukee Tribe is also in jeopardy. This case of water pollution is not only hurting the ecosystem, but also the cultural identity of the Miccosukee Tribe.
In the Clean Water Act - legislation designed to protect the waters of the United States  - federally recognized tribes have “treatment as states” status. This allows the Miccosukee Tribe to set its own water quality standards for tribal waters, which must be adhered to by both members and non-members of the tribe. The South Florida Water Management District’s decision to back-pump water into Miccosukee Tribal waters not only violates their water quality standards, but also ignores their authority. Additionally, the Clean Water Act requires that a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit be required before any pollutants from a point source can be discharged into navigable waters . The Miccosukee Tribe sued the South Florida Water Management District, stating that an NPDES permit should be required. Through this judicial activism, the Miccosukee Tribe were able to prevent additional water pollution. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Miccosukee Tribe, stating that the water management district needed to acquire a NPDES permit .
More than a decade later, in 2020, the Miccosukee Tribe faces another challenge to their tribal rights to a clean, Everglades ecosystem. The tribe has an agreement with the federal government, and did not ever consent to state control of wetlands. However, the control of wetlands development was changed from the federal government to the state of Florida when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler gave the Florida Department of Environmental Protection control of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act . This action was part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to weaken environmental protections before Joe Biden’s administration came into office. As a result, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is in charge of dredge and fill permits for the Everglades, a change made without any consultation with the Miccosukee Tribe, who have “treatment as state” status in the Clean Water Act.
In response, the Miccosukee Tribe released a statement: “The tribe is deeply appalled about the loss of culturally sensitive sites and the potential destruction of the Miccosukee way of life. This way of life is integrally entwined within the Florida Everglades” . Betty Osceola, a Miccosukee activist, clarified that the “tribes have codified rights to these lands” . The Miccosukee Tribe have led several prayer walks, as well as an 80 mile march in the Everglades to raise awareness on this issue. The change in wetlands management, which ignores tribal control of water quality, has taken authority away from the Miccosukee Tribe by acting as if Indian territory only exists in reservation boundaries. This change is especially concerning because of the lack of funding in the Department of Environmental Protection in Florida, meaning permits could be processed and approved without proper scrutiny.
2021 brought yet another threat to the Miccosukee Tribe’s tribal rights to a healthy ecosystem when an oil company applied for a permit to drill in Big Cypress National Preserve, where the Miccosukee Tribe has rights to some of the land within the boundaries of the preserve. The Texas based Burnett Oil Co. filed for permits to begin drilling in the preserve in 2022 . If the drilling is allowed to occur, it will not only threaten endangered wildlife, but an ancestral burying ground for the Miccosukee. The Miccosukee Tribe is worried about history, water quality, wildlife and the area’s ecosystem. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, with its limited funding and staffing, is currently reviewing Burnett Oil’s application.