South Florida's Seminole Cowboys: Cattle Is 'In Our DNA' : Code Switch Florida, with its lush grasslands, ranks 10th in the nation for its beef cattle herds — nearly 2 million head. And the Seminole Tribe of Florida is a major player in the cattle industry.
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South Florida's Seminole Cowboys: Cattle Is 'In Our DNA'

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South Florida's Seminole Cowboys: Cattle Is 'In Our DNA'

South Florida's Seminole Cowboys: Cattle Is 'In Our DNA'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When we think of the old West, we often think of Texas cowboys, but the first cattle came to the North American lands through Florida with the Spanish conquistadors. Some of the first cowboys were Florida's Seminole Indians, and today the Seminole tribe continues to play a major role in Florida's cattle industry. Jacki Lyden reports on the tribe's annual two-week round-up.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: It's early morning and cumulus clouds tower over us in the Everglades. Alligator Alley, as it's called, is a stretch of I-75 between Naples, Fla., and Miami. Snake Road leads to the Big Cypress Reservation where the Seminoles have their pastures. Black cattle dot the landscape. They're striking against stands of palm trees. The gate is painted in red, black and yellow - traditional colors. It says Jumper - Moses Jumper 64. He's a cattleman and tribal elder.

MOSES JUMPER: A lot of people look at us as wrestling alligators and the casinos and all that, but a lot of people don't realize that we're - we've been deeply involved with cattle all the way back into the 17 and 1800s. Some cattle in my family goes back all the way to my great uncle's and my mother and grandmother's. They were all cattle people.

LYDEN: The tribe's rich grasslands are surrounded by huge commercial Florida cattle operations, yet no one has been at this longer than the Seminoles - about 500 years. The Spanish conquistadors brought cattle to Florida in 1521 with Ponce de Leon and used natives to herd them. There are records from explorers of the late 1700s of thousands of cattle belonging to the Seminole leader called Cowkeeper. But those historic herds vanished with several wars against the Seminoles by the U.S. government, which nearly wiped out the tribe in the 1800s. Alex Johns, the tribe's ranch manager picks up the story.

ALEX JOHNS: I don't know if we're the only, but one of the few that never did sign a peace treaty with the United States government. We wasn't recognized American citizens, even though we'd been living here for 10,000 years. We were considered enemies of the state.

LYDEN: In 1957, the Florida Seminoles negotiated formal recognition by the government. The cattle program began in the 1930s at the Brighton Reservation near Lake Okeechobee.

JOHNS: Well, the government quit trying to kill us, quit trying to run us off this land. They acquired this property and worked with us to have cattle. They actually brought in a bunch of drought-stricken cattle from New Mexico from them Mescalero Apache Reservation, and that was the carrot that got my people to come to the Brighton Reservation.

LYDEN: It took decades, but today the Seminole raise a hardy breed called Brangus, a cross between Brahmin and Black Angus. This summer, 67 Seminole family owners took part in the annual round-up of the maturing calves. At first light, cowboys in pick-ups show up, some wearing spurs over their white rubber boots which are for swampy water. First, they let the dogs out. Skeeter Bowers says this is the real Florida.

SKEETER BOWERS: To the average person, when you say Florida, they think of Mickey Mouse and sunny beaches.

LYDEN: Yeah.

BOWERS: But really this is Florida right here.

LYDEN: Skeeter Bowers stands in a pen in front of hundreds of noisy calves at Brighton. Cowboys brandish whips and cattle prods as scores of calves and brood cows, the mothers, are separated through sorting gates. Skeeter does a kind of play by play.

BOWERS: You're going to hear a cowboy saying cow, cow, cow and then he's going to say steer, steer, steer, steer. And then he's going to say heifer, heifer, heifer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, let it go. Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. Let it...

LYDEN: Product from the herd, four or five at a time, cattle come thundering down wooden alleys. It's pulse-driving, heart-stopping work in 100-degree heat. At the last minute, a cowboy might leap to a fence rail to avoid getting trampled, three generations working together.

Sometimes it's not even disorderly. Seventy-five miles away, morning saw a dramatic scene at the Jumper ranch. Cowboys raced by on their horses in hot pursuit of strays. Cattle escaped from the pastures into the deep woods. A cow and three calves jumped clear through a barbed wire fence. Naha Jumper, 41, who'd been chasing them on an ATV with his father, downplayed it.

NAHA JUMPER: So far, so good. We kind of got a little breakaway over here, so we're going to have to go back there a little bit when it cools off. Right now it's little bit hot, so I'm going to let him wait and go eat some lunch.

LYDEN: And on round-up days, lunch is always a giant potluck. Each owner's responsible for traditional dishes like fry bread, pumpkin bread, Spam and tomatoes and a corn drink called Softki. Everyone - cowhands, foremen, and families - eat together under the trees near the cattle pens. There was a cowboy prayer led by Moses Jumper.

M. JUMPER: So let's all take our hats off. Father, we thank you today for the blessing of this day. And, Father, we ask you that the cattle be safe...

LYDEN: The tribe had a lot to be grateful for. The calves weighed more this year, filling 40 livestock trucks bound for feedlots out West. They grossed at least $3 million. But there have been years when Moses Jumper couldn't even cover his expenses. It doesn't really matter to him.

M. JUMPER: I get out there on my four-wheeler, you know, with my dogs, and it's a place for me to be. I enjoy it. Hopefully, when the Lord calls me home, I'll be laying out in the field somewhere, and he'll find me there doing what I love to do (laughter).

LYDEN: That sounds like a cowboy anywhere. In this case, it's a Seminole-Indian-Florida cowboy. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

CHIDEYA: This reporting was made possible in part with the support from the Florida Humanities Council.

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