Americans live in a settler colonial society, and this shapes how we understand and engage nature.
In the vast expanse of slow-flowing water and drained agricultural lands known as the Florida Everglades, thinking about settler colonialism helps make sense of Burmese python hunts and Seminole water rights, of scientific restoration models and National Park policies. Doing so informs my own ethnographic research on the relationship between peoples’ sense of belonging and the ways that they value water in the Everglades.
Let me pause to explain what I mean by settler colonialism. Life in the contemporary United States is shaped by seemingly long-ago events that dispossessed indigenous peoples. Less well understood, however, are the ways that ongoing settler colonial structures—of thought, economy, law, environment, and more—influence relations not only between but also among indigenous and non-indigenous Americans. These are distinctive to settler societies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand (the only other states that joined the U.S. to vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). Insofar as settler colonialism pervades American life, it affects social phenomena that do not directly involve indigenous people.
What does this have to do with the Everglades and the diverse people who live and work there? A great deal, but a few examples must suffice for now.
Reclamation and Refusal
White Floridians in the rural interior of South Florida often refer to the region as “the last frontier,” and indigenous Seminoles sometimes do the same.
During the 1800s and much of the 1900s, the Everglades mantra was “reclamation.” Real estate speculators, industrialists, and settler families and laborers joined politicians to battle the swamp’s alleged unproductivity, miasma, and political unrest. Reclamation projects drained the Everglades in the name of “reclaiming” the land from a state of waste and for manifestly destined productive use by (white) settlers.
But of course Seminoles had lived and fought in the Everglades before and during the era of reclamation. Whether feared as military threats or discarded as quasi-human exemplars of a wilderness that called for taming, Seminoles too became targets of settler colonial reclamation. Refusing removal, Seminoles hid out in the Everglades swamps that they credit to this day for saving them, and they sustained ways of life that defied reclamation’s goals.
My point is not only to recall that indigenous dispossession goes hand-in-hand with landscape transformation but also to assert that “reclamation” in the United States is inseparable from the history and ongoing presence of indigenous peoples. The reclamation process was one of compartmentalization, marking some parts of the Everglades for drainage and others for preservation. When creating the Everglades National Park (est. 1947) as preserved wilderness, boosters advocated Seminole removal (this was not new: Indians were removed to create U.S. national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone). A land swap removed most Seminoles from park land and created the Big Cypress Reservation. There, Seminoles have become key players in agriculture (especially cattle ranching) and ecosystem restoration. Meanwhile, despite the ongoing presence of Native people within the park, visitors to its website read about Native Americans only in the past tense. Reclamation is a process not only of acquisition and dispossession, but also of cultural production and forgetting.
“Saving the Everglades,” now guided by federal law, is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. In law and public culture, restoration is understood to be a technical issue or an interest-driven political battle. Perhaps. But, as Laura Ogden and others have shown, it’s also a social and cultural project.
The city seal of Clewiston (pop. 6,000), known as “America’s Sweetest Town” and perched on the south shore of bass-rich Lake Okeechobee, features an image of the United States Sugar Corporation (U.S. Sugar) mill that dominates the city landscape. As residents often told me, many had agreed for decades that what was good for “Sugar”—including efforts to fend of environmental taxes and lawsuits aimed at curtailing nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff—was good for the town. It was a shock, then, when in 2008 U.S. Sugar and Florida’s governor announced a planned buyout of the entire corporation and its 187,000 acres for the purpose of Everglades restoration. While environmentalists cheered the prospect of restoring water’s sheetflow through presently-drained lands, many Clewiston residents feared a future of economic decline and depopulation. Economic recession and political upheaval scaled back the buy-out to 26,800 acres and maintained U.S. Sugar’s operations, but the nationally publicized affair drove home the question of what restoration might really look like for the people and businesses of the Everglades.
While conducting ethnographic fieldwork on water’s value, I asked water managers, environmental advocates, farmers, and others: restore to when?
The universal response: to the way things were when white people settled. Even restoration skeptics shared the view, albeit by criticizing restoration for erasing people from the landscape. Ecologists with several government agencies and nonprofits confirmed that scientific models take the time of white settlement as their restoration baseline. Lest this seem intuitive, it is worth noting that indigenous people had long altered the landscape through agriculture, wildlife management, and water management, while early non-Native settlers were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to drain the swamp.
That white settlement is the taken-for-granted horizon for restoration is but one of many examples of how settler colonialism structures American nature. Another is the ongoing expectation that indigenous peoples will embody environmental values, and that those values go hand-in-hand with exclusion from economic gain. Over the last thirty years, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has disrupted a legacy of environmental incursion—exemplified by drainage of the Big Cypress Reservation and resultant economic and social upheavals—by directing casino gaming revenues toward water management and ecosystem restoration. The Big Cypress Water Conservation Plan, birthed by a $25 million funding match, represents the largest-ever tribal-federal restoration partnership. Meanwhile, the Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation Office keeps regional water managers on their toes by claiming jurisdiction over cultural artifacts that are unearthed during ecosystem-wide Everglades restoration projects. By tracing these processes ethnographically—alongside Seminole and non-Seminole farming and ranching, water management, environmental advocacy, and recreation—I aim to show policy-makers that cultural analysis is necessary for ecological restoration, regional economic development, and the promotion of a more just coexistence among the Everglades’ diverse human and non-human residents.
Settlers often claim a kind of native relationship to the land while displacing Native peoples, directly and conceptually. This is a basic contradiction of settler colonial societies.
A speech by Florida Senator Bill Nelson at the 2012 Everglades Coalition conference—where the theme was “Everglades Restoration: Worth Every Penny”—resounded with precisely this contradiction. To great applause, Nelson touted his efforts to ban importation of Burmese pythons. Pythons have reduced the population of other Everglades wildlife and captured the national imagination. Nelson tapped into a dominant environmental discourse that promotes native species and works toward the control of invasive ones.
Such appeals to the “native”—whether out of concern with giant snakes, striking lionfish, hearty melaleuca and Brazilian pepper trees, or other species—support a contradictory settler logic that blends attachment to the landscape with erasure of settler non-nativeness. Nelson went on, in a voice thick with longing, to imagine Florida as it was almost 500 years ago, when the “explorer” Ponce de León first encountered this land of beauty. Picturing that moment, Nelson delivered his rallying cry: “and that’s what we’re all here today for.”
Senator Nelson would have his presumptively non-Native audience simultaneously battle invasive species, identify with (invasive) Spanish colonizers, and restore the Everglades to a moment of naturalness just prior to European conquest. As his speech illustrates, settler logic requires that the metaphors and practices of native and non-native remain in play. One aspect of my ethnographic research with diverse Everglades residents is to identify and unravel such contradictions. Resolving them will require the hard work of unsettling nature as it is imagined and engaged in settler societies. Only then can we “save” the Everglades and do justice to the people—from cattle ranchers to sugar mill workers to environmental advocates—who live and work there.
Jessica R. Cattelino is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studies questions of citizenship and sovereignty, settler colonialism, and money and economy. Her research with the Seminole Tribe of Florida has been the basis for numerous published articles and a book, High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty (Duke University Press, 2008). Dr. Cattelino’s current project concerns the relationship between water’s valuation and political belonging in the Everglades.