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Miccosukee School

Miccosukee school helps preserve culture, heritage for children

By Karla D. Shores
Education Writer

November 2, 2003

Miles from exhaust fumes, past kitschy road signs of alligators with gaping mouths, in a sunny, two-story school surrounded by the still Everglades, a dozen students pore over books and worksheets in the Miccosukee language while others perfect the art of sewing intricate patchwork. Across the hall, students tackle math problems.

Their presence at the Miccosukee Indian School is evidence that more families are confident the tribe will preserve their culture and at the same time give Miccosukee children a formal education in the same type of mainstream school that once worked to strip them of their heritage.

"Kill the Indian, save the man," was the concept coined in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, who launched a campaign to assimilate Native Americans by sending their children to boarding schools in other states. The campaign continued until the 1940s.

Local white and black schools turned away Native American students because neither community thought they knew how to provide for those children, who often did not understand the mainstream classroom concept and shied away from appearing too ambitious, said ethno-historian Patsy West, director of the Seminole Miccosukee Photographic Archives in Fort Lauderdale.

The history of Native American mistrust stems from that assimilation, which they say bled many Native Americans of their tradition, lesson by lesson, and is the reason the tribe does not mandate formal education.

Now, the children see their brown faces and dark eyes mirrored in those of the Miccosukee teacher aides in the classrooms. In the hallways, they pass paintings of white-haired tribal elders with eyes that seem to watch them. They see their flag cast in an atrium of stained glass, washing the school's first floor in shades of black, red, yellow and white.

"They have to learn the non-Indian way and the Miccosukee way," said language arts teacher Bonnie Williams, who is Miccosukee. "In the future, they're going to need the non-Indian way. But I hope they come back and fill positions the non-Indians hold. To be the leaders."

making it work

Janelle Osceola, 15, and her classmates dress like typical teens in baggy hip-hop gear.

But her family constantly reminds her of what makes them different.

"My parents want me to learn and come to school," said Janelle, who plans to study philosophy and anthropology. "But the elders want you to speak your language and keep it alive. It's not that easy."

Formal education wasn't really encouraged because the tribe is so small and they don't want to encourage people to leave, said principal Tom Albano, who has been with the school since it opened in 2000. "But in the four years, I've definitely seen a change in parents promoting education."

Though the tribe's population has remained steady at 500, enrollment grew from 80 students in 2000 to the current 130 students.

Parent Suzanna Tiger-Cypress said she can remember how uncomfortable she felt outside the reservation and she wants her four children to understand non-Indian ideas and customs.

"Growing up, everything was closed off. We didn't really mingle with anyone. When we stepped out of that circle we went through racial problems," she said.

While students speak English at the school, many families require them to speak Miccosukee at home.

Aware of the priority to keep the language alive, teachers fortify classrooms by wrapping the walls in Miccosukee word signs. A is for abooche, which means table. Baysheke means bicycle. A haale is a cup.

The school holds "culture day" once a month. Students wear traditional garb in the style of their ancestors.

They cook under a chickee, an open-air hut, behind the school, and eat traditional foods like pan bread, tomatoes over rice, or sofkee, a soupy mixture of boiled water and grain.

All of this helps to guard against the tribe's two biggest fears: leaving and forgetting.


Members of the Miccosukee tribe are a political group of Florida Indians who chose not to assimilate into the Seminole tribe of Florida in the 1950s. The federal government recognized the Miccosukee tribe as a sovereign nation in 1961 after the tribe crafted its own constitution.

The tribe opened the Miccosukee Indian School in 1962, starting out with 19 children.

"The Miccosukee really maintained the status of no government, no help, we'll stand on our own two feet," said West. "They didn't want to be acculturated to that extent."

Tribal Chairman Billy Cypress said the tribe replaced that first school because it wanted the best for its children and because the new school doubles as a community center.

The school is in the Miccosukee tribal center, off Tamiami Trail, about 18 miles from the tribe's casino on Krome Avenue and a 30-minute drive from downtown Miami.

Non-Indian administrators run the school, but the tribe develops its curriculum, determined not to let the federal government control what their children learn -- ever again.

It boasts a state-of-the-art media center, TV studio, two computer labs, sewing, music, and art rooms, two full-sized gyms with weight rooms, and four computers in every classroom.

Rivaling the most elite private school, the school offers one teacher and two aides for every seven students.

No more than five students are enrolled in the upper grades.

"We're trying to get our kids to understand about themselves, about why we're in the Everglades, why they're different from any other kids. If you don't know who you are, you're going to spend your whole lifetime trying to figure out who you are," Chairman Cypress said.

Few students pursue degrees after graduation, said Albano. Two of last year's graduate class of four will go to college, but many women come back to work as teaching assistants, which does not require a degree. Some men often work as tour guides.

government funding

Cypress won't divulge how much money the tribe pumps into the school, but he said the federal government partially funds it.

The Department of Interior, which handles the Bureau of Indian Affairs, budgeted about $520,000 for the school the past school year -- about $4,000 per student. District schools receive $6,187 per student. But, like state-funded public schools, the Miccosukee school can also apply for a number of federal grants, said Lana Shaughnessey, special assistant to the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Indian Education Programs in Washington, D.C.

"We don't ever want for anything. Whatever we ask for, the tribe is generous," said assistant principal Barbara Clark.

The school's 13 teachers start by earning the same as their public school counterparts -- about $32,000 a year. But they get an annual raise of up to 10 percent -- 5 percent merit and about 5 percent for cost of living.

"We're so spoiled," said Albano, a former principal at crowded Turner Technical School. "Coming here was like a dream come true."

The school, accredited with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, also employs a librarian, a guidance counselor, and two full-time certified special-education teachers who work with about 25 students, said Clark.

Cypress handpicked Albano and Clark three years ago.

Clark, who came from teaching a language arts class of 39 students in Miami-Dade, said the school resurrected her love for teaching.

"It's an ideal situation. Because the county is so focused on test scores, it took the fun out of teaching and learning," said Clark, who administers the Terra Nova standardized exam, an aptitude test for private schools. "Our test scores continue to climb."

Teacher's assistant Donna Kolodziej, meanwhile, hunches over the beginnings of a shiny pink and turquoise beaded necklace. She will use her necklace as a model for her students, who will spend about five months perfecting the craft.

Knowing how to master such intricacies is knowing what it is to be Miccosukee, said Kolodziej, curling her fingers to allow needle and thread to slip through the small beads.

"Our ancestors started doing this since the early 1900s when travelers came over and glass beads were first imported," she said quietly, her eyes fixed on her work.

Assertiveness is downplayed at the school, said Clark, and leadership comes slowly because elders teach younger generations to think for the tribe, learn for the tribe, and work for the tribe.

Teachers are also trained to be sensitive to tribal customs that can preclude students from doing certain assignments. For example, custom does not allow some clans within the tribe to discuss death and dying in class, or to dissect frogs in biology class.

"We sent a note home," said Albano. "Most families said no problem and some said, "You don't use an animal for the sake of using it.'"

Jena Osceola, the only senior, will be the school's 14th graduate since 2000. Jena said she sometimes feels lonely.

"A lot of people don't know we exist," said Osceola, 17. "Whenever people find out about me being Miccosukee they connect me to bingo. I want to change that."

Osceola, who wants to be a veterinarian, has her pick of scholarships from the University of Miami and Miami-Dade Community College. She said she plans to return and practice on the Tamiami reservation.

Success, said Chairman Cypress, is told in the number of educated Miccosukee children who return to the tribe after graduation from high school or college. If the school is successful, said Cypress, the circle will expand but never break.

"Ninety-nine percent of students come back because of our teaching and understanding of where we are and who we are. It's called home. The Everglades. We're proud of that."

Karla Shores can be reached at or 954-356-4552.

Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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