Buffalo Tiger with Cubans in 1959. It is unclear why Tiger would have been wearing a Plains-style feather headdress, but it was a practice other non-Plains tribal leaders adopted in this era.

When Mad Bear Met Fidel: How Castro’s Cuba Advanced Native Sovereignty

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Earlier this month, the United States announced that embassies would be reestablished in both the U.S. and Cuba. After roughly half a century of political stalemate between the two countries, the announcement is the latest action in a thawing diplomatic relationship. After the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro’s nationalization of hundreds of private businesses and growing communist policies alienated the U.S. By 1962 President Kennedy had imposed a full economic embargo against Cuba, reinforcing Castro’s relationship with Russia during the frosty years of the Cold War.

The U.S.’s deteriorating relationship with Cuba paralleled its deteriorating relationship with Native nations. Termination as federal Indian policy had reached a fevered pitch in 1959, and there couldn’t have been a worse time for a tribal nation to be seeking federal recognition, but this is in fact how things played out for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. Truth being sometimes stranger than fiction, the Miccosukees’ relatively obscure story ties them to Fidel Castro’s split with the American government in a brilliant moment of American Indian political strategizing.

In 1954 the Miccosukees were a segment of, but distinct from, the larger Seminole Nation. A bill to determine the readiness of the Seminoles for self-sufficiency (i.e. termination) initiated a fractioning of the tribe. Testimony by Miccosukee representative Buffalo Tiger in congressional hearings for a Seminole termination bill revealed the different cultural orientations of the Miccosukee and began a bid for federal recognition apart from the Seminoles. While the Miccosukees were granted state recognition in 1957, their efforts to secure land and federal recognition were continually thwarted.

A public relations showdown ensued. Hoping to embarrass the government into cooperation, in 1959 the Miccosukees had taken their case to national television, threatened to go to the World Court in the Hague, and even made presentations to the Spanish and British embassies arguing that they retained land under colonial treaties with them.

Forming a pan-Indian coalition with “Mad Bear” Anderson and others, they prepared “buckskin declarations” stating their claims (written on buckskins) and sent one to Fidel Castro. Accompanying the buckskin was a note congratulating him on his liberation of the Cuban people. In response, the Cubans invited a group of Natives to attend the 26 July celebration of Cuban independence in Havana.

An 11-member delegation that included Buffalo Tiger, Mad Bear Anderson, Miccosukee attorney Morton Silver, and other Miccosukee leaders arrived in Cuba to the pomp and circumstance of marching bands, police escorts, and machete-wielding farmers. With them they brought a letter addressed to Castro commemorating the event and their status as his “personal guests of honor on the greatest day of celebration in the history of Cuba.” The letter made reference to eighteenth century treaties the Miccosukees made with the Cubans’ Spanish forebears, ancient alliances with the Cubans’ ancestors (whom the Miccosukees visited in “log canoes with animal-skin sails”), and wars fought against their ancestors’ enemies in defense of the Cuban ancestral lands and peoples. Promising to never forget the generosity being shown them, the letter was signed “The Sovereign Miccosukee Seminole Nation.”

The letter received by the Miccosukees in return was written by Dr. Juan Orta from the Office of the Foreign Ministry. Written in appreciation of the Miccosukees support for the Revolutionary government and its “Agrarian Reforma,” the letter is above all a recognition and affirmation of the mutual sovereignty of the Miccosukee and Cuban peoples.

“It is whit [sic] pleasure that the free Cuban Government takes this opportunity, in return, to formally recognize your newly established government as the duly constituted government of the Sovereign Miccosukee Seminole Nation,” the letter reads, and goes on to proclaim the Cubans’ wishes that “that your government will, likewise, be successful in protecting your everglades [sic] homeland for your people.”

Interestingly, the letter also acknowledges that “[t]he long struggle of your Miccosukee Nation and the perseverance [sic] and courage of your indomitable and freedom loving people is well known throughout the world.”

The public commemoration of the Revolution’s first anniversary included long speeches by Castro in the hot sun; “[t]he crowds and everyone, including all of us Indians (including me), were on the balcony with Castro, and he kissed us with tears streaming down his cheeks,” remembered one of the attendees.

The Miccosukee’s trip to Cuba was mostly ill-received back home in the states. Criticism was levied from all angles including some Miccosukees, the Florida governor and the state cabinet who expressed second thoughts on a land lease that was under consideration. But as Tiger recounted, it wasn’t long before he began getting phone calls from state and federal officials promising to “work things out” with the Miccosukees. Not surprisingly, “working things out” also involved demands that the Miccosukees promise to disengage from their Cuban connections.

It would be over two years before the Miccosukees were granted federal recognition (which happened on January 2, 1962) and by then the tribe had split into two factions. Buffalo Tiger led the larger group and it was his group that was eventually recognized. Tiger was elected tribal chairman and served in that position for 24 years. He was also foundational to the creation of the United Southeastern Tribes and served as Co-Chair of the Florida Governor’s Council on Indian Affairs for more than 20 years.

The Miccosukee’s Cuban story might be seen as a colossal publicity stunt or an act of political theatre, but more than that it is a stark reminder that international diplomacy is an ancient form of nation-craft among Indigenous Peoples. It also reminds us that politics is always a game of “maximizing self-interest,” as political scientists are fond of saying. It was as true a thousand years ago as it was during the termination years and is today.

A special thanks to the research of Harry A. Kersey, Jr. which informed this article.

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aliberaldoseofskepticism's picture
Submitted by aliberaldoseofs... on
I would be interested in an entire list of articles about the international influence on indigenous rights. Can I suggest countries? I'm thinking something more along the Mediterranean for the next one. ;)