Growing up in the Everglades in the 1920s, William Buffalo Tiger was exposed to the area before there were roads running through it, when the water was so clear you could see the fish swimming through.
It wasn’t until April 6, 1928, that Tiger watched as cars drove by after the Tamiami Trail was built.
And after that, “life changed” for Tiger, son Lee Tiger said. But even though his lifestyle changed, his morals and commitment to his tribe never wavered, Lee Tiger said.
“He’s known in many circles for all the work and achievements and all the hurdles he had to go through,” Lee Tiger said, “to get the tribe in a good situation with where they are now.”
Buffalo Tiger led the Miccosukee tribe during a time of tension and growth, from the 1960s to the ‘80s. Amid disputes and deals with the federal government, encroaching development and the start of tourist attractions, he took center stage at making a better life for his people.
William Buffalo Tiger, who died Tuesday at age 94 from natural causes, served for 24 years as the chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, descendants of Indians who escaped deportation under President Andrew Jackson’s removal act in the 1800s.
Buffalo Tiger took an activist role in dealing with problems.
When members of the Miccosukee Tribe were being harassed by Everglades game wardens for fishing without licenses and cutting the palmetto leaves, he immediately stepped in by setting up a meeting with Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins.
“The issue was resolved,” Lee Tiger said. “We once again lived peacefully.”
Before he became chairman, Buffalo Tiger became a spokesman for the tribe and liaison with the state and federal governments in the early 1950s.
When the U.S. government said the tribe would lose its recognition in 1959, Buffalo Tiger traveled to Cuba with other members of the tribe, where he was greeted by Fidel Castro and invited to settle in Cuba.
“My father asked them, ‘Do you guys recognize Miccosukee’ and they said, ‘Yea, we know, we know about you,’ ” Lee Tiger said.”They said, ‘If you can’t find a place, we’ll give you a piece of land where you can bring your people and live. We won’t bother you. You can just grow your own food and eat and fish.’”
After returning from Cuba, Buffalo Tiger was met with phones “ringing off the hook,” Lee Tiger said, with people from Washington calling about the tribe’s recognition. After the trip, on Jan. 11, 1962, the tribe got its recognition from the U.S.
Buffalo Tiger also designed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, legislation that allowed the secretaries of the Department of Interior and the Department of Health and Human Services to issue contracts and grants to Indian tribes. The act awarded Indian tribes with more sovereignty, eliminating the need for them to go through an Indian agent before going to the government.
“He wanted the tribe to control its own destiny with the federal government,” Lee Tiger said, “not have someone in the middle swaying one way or another.”
In 1976, to showcase the tribe, Buffalo Tiger along with his son Lee Tiger, started nature tours. The team attended many conferences together to “make friends” and develop relationships with the tourism operators. The company allowed the two to travel to many different countries and spread the tribe’s way of life.
That initial move toward tourism eventually expanded to boat tours, art villages and the sprawling casino-hotel in West Miami-Dade.
After he left the chairmanship, Buffalo Tiger remained active, his son said.
He ran Buffalo Tiger’s Airboat Tours into his 90s.
“I can remember when he was in his late 80s, I said ‘Pop, are you getting old’ and he said, ‘Well I’m not old now but I’m getting there,’” Tiger Lee said. “So I asked him in his 90s, and he said the same thing.”
Lee Tiger said he was grateful for his father and all of the important qualities learned from him. Lee Tiger, who is a musician, said he will be putting out a CD in March in honor of his father’s legacy.
“He was a good father,” Lee Tiger said. “He taught us well, taught us good morals, and a lot of Miccosukee ways, truth and honesty … and be respectful of others so that’s what we learned from him and it was good that we did.”
In addition to Lee Tiger, Buffalo Tiger is survived by his wife, Yolima Tiger, son William Buffalo Tiger Jr., daughter Sally Tiger, son David Tiger, daughters Jennifer and Jessica and 21 grandchildren.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Woodlawn Park Cemetery South, 11655 SW 117th Ave.