Sunday, December 14, 2008

Snake Warrior's Island

December 11, 2008
Snake Warrior's Island
Miramar, Florida

Today we stepped back in time. Even though the islands and wetlands have been "re-created" here at Snake Warrior's Island, it could have looked like this hundreds of years ago. In the 20th century this land was a farm, it was drained and built up to grow oranges. Recently, before the park was built, this residential area was very prone to flooding. It makes sense if you think about it because it is supposed to be wetlands here. The Everglades was dominant here just a little over 100 years ago. Like, Long Key Natural Area and the Pine Island Ridge at Tree Tops Park, this region consisted of mostly shallow, sawgrass filled water, speckled throughout with islands where the higher ground lay. Snake Warrior's Island is one of those islands. Here the ground is naturally higher, part of the Atlantic coastal ridge. This higher ground allowed for harder wood hammocks to grow, like Live Oak in this case, and provided for wildlife and humans inhabit the land.

Long ago, the Tequesta Indians lived in this area, setting up their thriving communities on these islands and using dugout canoes made out of Cypress trees to navigate through the watery world. Later, after the ancient people had been wiped out due to war, disease, and flight, the Seminole tribe moved down here from Georgia and Alabama's Creek tribes. They were on the run from the American government. They chose well coming here to Florida. The Everglades provided them with the perfect place to hide and survive. Possibly, the Tequesta and Calusa Indians that stayed behind shared their knowledge with the Seminoles, teaching them about dugout canoes and how to survive the mosquitoes, snakes, alligators and never-ending water.

The American army, however had no such knowledge and they fell prey to the endless water full of plants as sharp as razors and mosquitoes that attacked in hordes. The Seminoles knew how to hide, and live, on these islands dotted throughout the landscape. They would hide in the trees and ambush the Americans as they came upon them unawares. The Seminole tribe never signed a treaty by force and never surrendered. They are a sovereign nation to this day.

One of the great chiefs was Chitto Tustenuggee, or Snake Warrior. He was a beloved leader to his people. His land was the land here in Miramar. His people thrived here on these islands, they brought agriculture - some of the main crops were corn, sugar cane, and bananas (sugar cane and bananas were both brought from the Spanish in the 1500's).

Eventually, the people were pushed off of this land, moved to reservations in Hollywood and the Everglades. However, their history is continuing to live on thanks to Broward County and the city of Miramar. Re-creating this wetland habitat has not only served to protect the cultural heritage of Florida's people, but it is also providing a much needed home for native plants and animals, a beautiful and healthy place for the local community, and protection from flooding. The wetlands prevent flooding in the neighborhoods by diverting the water into the ponds here at the natural area.

The plants and animals are diverse and healthy. It is a wonderful place to bird watch, we saw a large amount of Common Moorhens, Tri-colored Herons, a few Great Blue Herons, Ibis, and a flock of Great Egrets and some Snowy's. While out on our nature walk through the wetland environment, the kids and the moms and I practiced our sneaking skills. We had a pretty big group, which makes it kind of hard to get close to the birds. Slowly and quietly, and on our tip toes, we got as close as we could to an Anhinga sunning herself. The children did quite well. Some of them ran off, others chased moths, but most tried very hard to fine-tune their bird-watching skills. As we were walking away from the Anhinga, one naturalist noticed a little brown bird hiding in the grasses. This bird knew how to stay hidden until we got close and then flew far to the other side as soon as we came near. He was jumping around so much that we couldn't get a good look to see who he/she was. After researching, I believe it may have been a type of Rail, maybe a Virginia Rail.

Here at the island the grasses are thriving, cord grass, saw grass, and other reeds. Kaya and Lucas were especially knowledgeable of all the plants. Kaya taught me about the red algae growing on the water. The kids learned that they could make a delicious salad out here if need be - made up of Duck Potato, Pickerel Weed, Coco Plums, greens from the leaves of Spanish Needle, Cabbage Palm hearts, Cattails, and even the hearts of Saw Grass.

On the other side of the wetland lies a beautiful, but somewhat young, Live Oak Hammock. It is stuffed full of beautiful, shady trees, making a fantastic home for the squirrels and birds (among many others) and a reprieve for local people. Here, we stepped back in time and became native children. Children who lived in the wild and off of the land needed to be very observant and stealthy and always aware of what was going on around them. They needed to know how to hide, protect themselves, and help provide for their community. Native tribes across the America's had many games that the children would play in order to develop those skills necessary to survive in their environment, and just to have fun.

Our kids became native kids for an hour. We played a few games, with a bit of a modern influence that they really loved. The first game was a memory game. Each child had a partner and a blindfold and a bunch of pennies, buttons, and marbles and such. The child without the blindfold had to create a "pattern" with the items. The partner was then able to "look" at the pattern without the blindfold in order to memorize it. Then the pattern was destroyed and the partner had to re-create it by memory. This game is wonderful to do anytime. Kids love it and it develops observation, memory, and mathematical skills. They did really well at this and could have kept at it over and over.

Next, we played "Firekeeper". One of the jobs that children would have in a tribe was that of fire-wood collector. The kids would be sent out into the forest to pick up the best sticks for kindling. I sent our kids out in the Oak hammock, on a mission to collect two pieces each. Of course they wanted to collect more than that. They were even trying to bring over huge branches. I think it is in their DNA to do this task, I swear they could do this for hours and hours. Then we made a fire circle, or pile of the wood collected. One child was chosen to be the "fire-keeper". The job was to protect the pile from thieves (the other children). The catch was that the fire-keeper is blindfolded. The other children had to sneak up on the keeper and attempt to steal one piece of wood at a time without being tagged. The fire-keeper had to remain seated and had to touch someone if they felt them. Of course, most of the wood eventually gets taken, but sometimes most of the kids also get out. There are always some really stealthy, sneaky kids who plan ahead (in this case - Zak) and get alot of wood. The child who is the fire-keeper has to use all of his senses, besides sight, which helps to strengthen the skills needed to survive. The thieves learn how to be quiet and how to work together if need be. It was great fun.

The last game we played was a version of the "Ball and Triangle" game played by the Penobscot tribe of the northeastern United States. Traditionally they used birch bark and acorns or some other nut, we used cardboard and clay and string. Before class I cut out a bunch of cardboard triangles and cut holes in the middle and attached a string. The kids made a ball out of clay and attached it to the string. The goal of the game is to get the ball through the hole. Each time they got the ball in the hole, the child was awarded with a bean. I was so surprised at how many times they got it in and how excited they were to be awarded with a bean!! I have to compete with video games and such, but am happy to say that kids really do love the simple stuff! They were able to take their triangles home, maybe they are crumpled up in a corner by now, but it doesn't matter because they were well loved for a few short moments.

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