William Buffalo Tiger, the first tribal chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, passed away on January 6, 2005. His contributions as a leader and advocate for his people and other tribes ensure that he will never be forgotten.
Buffalo Tiger was born on March 6, 1920, on an island in the Everglades to Sally Tiger and Tiger Tiger, according to an obituary written by his eldest son, Lee Tiger. He grew up in the pristine “River of Grass;” the Tamiami Trail, which would forever change the Everglades and Miccosukee’s way of life, did not open for vehicle traffic until 1928.
While almost always an activist for his people—helping them to navigate and survive in the new “white” world—Buffalo Tiger did not take on an official role until 1953, when the tribe’s medicine people appointed him to serve as spokesperson in its dealings with the federal and state governments. In his autobiography, Buffalo Tiger: A Life in the Everglades (Bison Books, 2008), he said he was chosen for his assertiveness and his ability to speak some English.
As spokesperson, an unpaid position, Buffalo Tiger was constantly championing for the preservation of his tribe. In 1955, he met with Florida Governor Thomas LeRoy Collins to put an end to the harassment his family suffered by game wardens in the Everglades, according to his obituary. In 1954, during the termination hearings under Eisenhower’s presidency, he traveled with two Miccosukee men and a lawyer by train to Washington, D.C. They went with a message to the president from the Miccosukee’s medicine people that essentially said the tribe was not interested in what he had to offer. He wrote in his autobiography, “[W]e didn’t want anything from him. We just wanted to live our life. We just wanted to live on the land the way we had always lived on it—to hunt and find food the way we had always done it.”
A significant highlight of his life unfolded in 1958. The federal government had failed to meet a critical deadline to recognize the Miccosukee as a tribe, according to his obituary. The tribe received an invitation to visit Cuba, which, as Lee Tiger wrote in the obituary, was “brought on by the country’s remembrance of a treaty between the Miccosukee Tribe and Spain dating back to the 1700s.” With federal Indian policy in removal mode—diminishing the Miccosukee’s chances of obtaining recognition—Buffalo Tiger and a group of Miccosukee people went to Cuba to seek recognition from Fidel Castro, which the communist leader granted. This move ultimately led to the federal government’s decision to grant the tribe federal recognition in 1962. Buffalo Tiger served as the tribe’s chairman from 1962 to 1985.
Another important achievement, which impacted Indian Country as a whole, was his contributions to the design of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, also known as Public Law 93-638, according to the obituary. He also was integral to the establishment of United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET), which today has a membership of 26 tribes. He served as an officer on the organization’s board of directors for 17 years and was president emeritus since 2010.
In a statement issued upon Tiger’s passing, current USET President Brian Patterson said, “For the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and all of Indian Country, Chairman Tiger was a trailblazer to help bring federal recognition and assistance for his Tribe, a founding leader of USET, and an inspiration that there is hope beyond the darkness. The USET family is saddened by Chairman Tiger’s passing and stand proud that his moccasins left many of the foot prints we follow and work to fill today.”
A statement released by the office of Miccosukee Chairman Colley Billie lauds Tiger as a legend. “Chairman Tiger leaves a legacy of leadership, political, social and civic activism that will be greatly missed. … We honor him for shaping our world and establishing a strong foundation for the current and future generations to lead their lives with a sense of independence, unwavering determination to be self-sufficient and reverence for traditions,” the tribe said in the statement.
In addition to his son Lee, Buffalo Tiger is survived by his wife Yolima Tiger, son William Buffalo Tiger Jr, daughter Sally Tiger, son David Tiger, daughters Jennifer and Jessica, and 21 grandchildren. His funeral was held on January 8 in Miami.