MIAMI — For more than a hundred years, the Miccosukee Indians have lived and governed themselves on a slice of grassy marshland on the edge of the Florida Everglades.
But when the tribe recently decided to build 65 new houses on its 333-acre reservation, which sits on the northern lip of the nation's most prized swamp, the National Park Service balked.
Later this month, a US district judge in Miami will re-hear arguments on whether the National Park Service acted "in bad faith" by rejecting a Miccosukee plan to build new houses on park land.
The park service is trying to block the new construction, saying that it might jeopardize federal efforts to restore the Everglades. Meanwhile, the Miccosukees say they do not need federal approval to proceed and that new housing is essential to the tribe's survival. So the Miccosukees are suing.
The case is the latest chapter in the enduring conflict between native American land-rights and National Park Service management of the country's treasures. The case is being closely watched because it could have important ramifications for similar disputes in other parts of the country.
Also later this month, a bipartisan group of Florida congressmen plan to reintroduce a bill declaring that the tribe has the authority to build what it wants, where it wants on its reservation.
"This is really one battle in an ongoing war with the park service that seems to feel that people have no role in parks, unless they are park employees," says Dexter Lehtinen, the lawyer for the Miccosukees.
The battle between the Miccosukees and the Nation Park Service started three years ago, when the tribe wanted to build 65 new houses on its reservation. The park service, at first, was able to block the initiative. But after pressure from the Alliance to Protect Native Rights in National Parks - a newly formed group of six tribes, including the Miccosukees - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt intervened and allowed the Miccosukees to build 30 houses.
Still, the tribe is continuing to sue the park service for the right to build 35 more houses. The Miccosukees maintain that the housing shortage is threatening the tribe's existence.
"When you lack housing and people are more spread out, it actually has a devastating effect on the culture, on the ability to interact, to speak with each other, to continue the language, to continue the tribal traditions, to get kids to the tribal school," Lehtinen says. "So they need to be housed somewhat together."
But Everglades Park Superintendent Richard Ring says the park has been reluctant to approve new housing for the Miccosukees for environmental reasons. "About 50 percent of the Everglades has been lost and converted to some other land use ... from agriculture to urban development," Mr. Ring says.
The Miccosukees have long argued that they are the true stewards of the Everglades, and have a far better record of preserving the land than state or federal governments.
Miccosukee chairman Billy Cypress says his people must be permitted to take care of their own housing needs. "We've been running the affairs for ourselves for almost 30 years now," he says, "and we feel that we've demonstrated that we've been capable of running our own affairs."