By Tina Osceola
As we sit in our beach chair that is perfectly positioned so it faces the turquoise green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, we
slather our sunscreen and reach for a bottle of water from our ice-filled cooler. The furthest thing from our sunbaked mind is that the beaches we sit upon are environmentally important to an ecosystem which provides a different way of life.
Naples in the summer may seem intolerable for those who flee north to escape the suffocating humidity and the swarms of mosquitoes. For the full time residents, the summer represents an opportunity for the locals to dine in their favorite restaurants without a two hour wait. For one Miccosukee woman who lives in Florida’s Everglades, however, the seasonal changes to the environment mark a passage of time that brings memories of her childhood and her ancestors into the present.
Debbie Osceola has lived all of her 58 years in villages along Florida’s Tamiami Trail. As many pass by the Miami Dolphin themed wooden fence that is on the easternmost edges of Collier County, they may notice the monster truck that sits alongside the fence or the alligators that sun themselves on the canal banks. What they don’t know is that on the other side of that fence, Debbie is carrying on a way of life that represents a culture that is ancient to Collier County.
When conjuring her fondest memory of growing up in the Everglades, she recalls what seems to most as an inconvenience, but for Debbie, it is what she misses most, “You didn’t have to go to town for meat. Dad and
my uncles would go hunting for that and share with the family.” Her memories only take us back to the 1960’s in
Southwest Florida, but compared to today, it may as well be prehistoric Florida, “When I was younger, before kids,
we used to go to my grandma’s village… my dad’s mom. I remember my aunt, Mittie Jim, sewing while my uncles
drove airboats taking tourists out to see the Everglades.
Since my dad had a lot of siblings and they had a lot of kids, it was a big happy family. I miss that.” It was expected that a conversation about life in the Everglades with Debbie would be more like her Facebook photos and include how she navigates around the alligators who make her home their home, with some being so big that she has to call the Miccosukee Police Department to come remove them. Instead, she reminisces and advocates for her village life, “I love it.. when we used to have the gift shop open, tourists asked how can you live out here in the middle of nowhere.. it’s so scary out here… I just tell them I am more afraid of living in the city because you have too many crazies there.”
Debbie grew up during a time when many of the villages along Tamiami Trail were open to tourists. Everyone who lived there had to participate in the tourist trade, “I used to do beadwork. I started beading at the age of 6 because the whole family helped with money.” Debbie is the mother of five and she has 19 grandchildren and it was out of a need to provide clothing for her children that she began sewing traditional Seminole patchwork. Now, Debbie’s designs are highly sought after.
Just on the other side of the fence, in her village along the Tamiami Trail, you can hear her sewing machine buzzing all day and late into the evenings. In addition to the clothing she sews for her family, she is also known for her custom orders. Although the traditions being carried on may seem ancient, Debbie is a regular on social media.
Many of her customers have their notifications set so they can get first dibs on the colorful skirts she designs. As the traffic lightens along Tamiami Trail and the summer humidity begins to climb, Debbie keeps the fire going in her cook chickee. The smoke from the fire keeps mosquitos at bay.
In Miccosukee culture that same fire also represents the heart of the family and a place her family can always come home to. Although she will wipe sweat from her brow much like we will do while sitting in our beach chair, Debbie’s daily life is a continuation of generations of experiences, culture, heritage and most of all her living memories of a way of life that she holds on to with a fierce purpose.
photo credit to Mae’anna Osceola