By: Richard Thornton – Community Planner, Architect and Native American Historian
Five hundred years ago, the young Spanish colonial town of Pensacola was surrounded by permanent and seasonal wetlands. The swamps were considered a vital part of the colony’s defenses – in more ways than one. They made transportation of heavy siege cannons near the fortifications of Pensacola by a European enemy almost impossible. They also helped keep hurricane damages to a minimum, ensured viable food and water supply, and more.
Great Britain won the French and Indian War in 1763 and in process, gained all of the present-day Southeastern United States. Attacks by large European armies were no longer a concern. Defense of the harbor against enemy fleets and privateers became the focus of military engineers. Expansion of the potential farmland around Pensacola became a major objective of British colonial officials. Work crews of African slaves were utilized to construct drainage canals out of the wetlands.
West Florida became a province of Spain again at the end of the American Revolution in 1783, but Spain had been an ally of the fledgling United States during the war, so it did not initially worry about a land-based attack. Defense from land-based attacks briefly became a concern during the War of 1812, but the war was primarily between the United States and Great Britain, along with their Native allies.
All of Florida was part of the United States after 1821. The population in and around Pensacola exploded. Newly arrived farmers and land speculators drained remaining swamplands whenever their low level technology permitted it.
The construction of the Pensacola Naval Air Station and vast increase in the city’s population during World War II further accelerated the drainage of swamps. By now diesel-powered pumps were in general use. Almost daily, county health departments used gasoline-powered pumps to spray DDT on the remaining swamps to kill mosquitoes. The DDT directly or indirectly killed most natural wildlife in the swamps. Both good and “bad” insects were killed, which then eliminated a major food source for fish. It entered the food chain and caused birds to be unable to reproduce. The remaining swamps became moribund basins – full of dangerous bacteria, trash, fecal matter and toxic chemicals.
In the late 20th century, the leaders of Pensacola became increasingly aware that the destruction of natural wetlands had harmed the ecology of the region, and made it more vulnerable to hurricanes. It seemed too late to make any significant improvements in the situation, because of the cost of labor and materials required by the wetland restoration process. A healthy wetland system ringing the periphery of the metropolitan area would dramatically improve the water quality of Pensacola Bay by filtering storm drainage run-off prior to entering the ocean. The question remained, how to accomplish this massive project in an era of tight government budgets.
Bearheart – The “Great Leader”
He was born in a log cabin during the Great Depression along the banks of the Ocmulgee River in Georgia. From an early age he began learning the ways of his ancestors. Mikko Bobby “Bearheart” Johns, Principal Chief of the Perdido Muscogee-Creek Tribe near Pensacola, FL knows that their spiritual ways and love of nature are still alive today. Mikko is a Creek Indian word meaning “Great Leader” that is derived from the Maya word “mako,” which was used in Central America as a title for the leader of a town.
Mikko Bearheart is quick to point out that he is not a one-man government. Like in the past, he essentially is the CEO of a council of leaders that make decisions by consensus. Bearheart stated that there are many, many people in his small tribe, both on the council and as members, who constantly contribute to the many programs that the Perdido Bay tribe undertakes.
In 2008, the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection adopted “targets” for improving water quality in Bayou Chico and Pensacola Bay. The Escambia County, Florida government invited the Perdido Bay Tribe to locate its cultural heritage center in the 1,300+ acre Jones Swamp, if the tribe would agree to join the county in an ecological experiment in the restoration of natural habitats to its original ecological vitality. Mikko Bobby “Johns” Bearheart said, “Yes, we can do it.” . . . and they did do it.
The innovative partnership has made dramatic strides in the improvement of water quality in the area. This was accomplished with minimal funding assistance by government agencies and lots of work by the Native Americans.
The tribe applied for a grant from the federal economic stimulus program, but was denied. It did receive $300 for seeds, fertilizer and spray to eradicate the invasive popcorn tress through the USDA/NRCS Migratory Bird Habitat program.
There are many projects underway at the Jones Swamp Wetland Preserve and Nature Trail. In addition, to the cleaning of remaining natural wetlands, a recharge pond has been constructed, sections of the preserve have been replanted in native species, areas have been sown in native plants utilized by water fowl and migratory species, plus much of the site has been made accessible for passive recreation. In addition, the entire site, has been designated a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
In September of 2011, the tribe received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support operational and educational programs associated with its new native plants propagation program. In addition to cultivation of species for restoring the Jones Swamp, the facility may in the future be utilized to propagate native plants that can be planted in dryer locations along the Gulf Coast such as beaches and bays impacted by the oil spill. The tribe has also received other corporate and private grants to assist with operating expenses and other projects.
The Perdido Bay Muscogee-Creek Tribe is providing a variety of attractions for visitors during the grand opening. These include one-to-one contact with Creek Indians, traditional Native American dances, musical concerts, the grand opening of its museum and a display of high quality, Native American crafts for sale to the public.
Integrating Humans and Nature
Soon visitors will be able to go hiking and horseback riding along the preserve trails and watch nature closely, as the swampland sanctuary is abounding with a variety of lively and striking species. However, the horseback riding facilities will necessarily be in another section of the preserve, away from the tribe’s cultural heritage center. Owl boxes and a butterfly garden were installed on the land to attract desirable wildlife. Day camps for children, soil and water projects and classes to teach Native American arts-and-crafts are part of the tribe’s long range vision.
In a new partnership, the indigenous peoples of the Florida Panhandle are working with local, state and federal officials to restore a valuable wetland ecological preserve near the Gulf Coast that was considered by many to be too far destroyed to be resuscitated. Now, it is becoming an ecological miracle that will once again purify water, bring back endangered species, and reduce hurricane damages in the region. Chief Bearheart’s tribe has proven that Native Americans can work cordially with local, state and federal officials to accomplish a project that makes the world a better place for all to live in.
It is a model that can be applied throughout North America.