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Lake O Prayer Walk Aims To Defend Everglades Future

Prayer Walk for the Everglades.
Lisette Morales
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Lisette Morales
Miccosukee grandmother Betty Osceola holds a sign for the "Defend the Sacred" movement. Everglades Loop Road, Ochopee, Fla., January 7, 2021.

Lake Okeechobee is referred to as the “liquid heart of Florida” for good reason. It functions as a critical aspect of South Florida’s flood control and water supply systems. Millions of people depend on it for water.

Last week, a group of 26 people circled the 118-mile circumference of Lake Okeechobee in seven days on a Prayer Walk. The purpose was to draw attention to conservation efforts in the Everglades and show opposition to what’s called 404 permitting, which takes regulation of dredging activity away from the United States Environmental Protection Agency and hands it to the much more permissive state of Florida.

Prayer walk for the Everglades.
Lisette Morales
Prayer walkers lead by Betty Osceola (far l.) make their way in silence around Lake Okeechobee near Clyde’s Canal in Lakeport, Fla., on Wednesday, February 10, 2021. Osceola organized the 7-day Prayer Walk around Lake Okeechobee under the #DefendtheSacred mantle to raise awareness about the protection of the natural world.

The walk was led by 53-year-old Betty Osceola, of Ochopee in the Big Cypress Preserve. She’s distressed about the level of water pollution.

Miccosukee grandmother Betty Osceola prays on her airboat in the Everglades, Ochopee, Fla., on January 7, 2021.
Lisette Morales
Miccosukee grandmother Betty Osceola prays on her airboat in the Everglades, Ochopee, Fla., on January 7, 2021.

“If you really sit down and look at the watersheds throughout the state, they’re in serious need of help. They’re very polluted. So that’s our water source for not just ourselves but the flora and fauna. If you develop all your wild spaces, where is our wildlife going to exist?”

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Lisette Morales, WGCU
Thousands of spiderwebs cover the open green space at Brad Phares’s ranch near Indian River Bridge in Okeechobee, Fla., on Wednesday, February 10, 2021. Phares is an 8th-generation rancher, as well as an artist and attorney dedicated to conservation. Phares invited the prayer walkers to camp on his property.

Osceola is a member of the Miccosukee Tribe and she connects her work preserving the lake back to her culture's values of honoring the land.

“For me, being Miccosukee, we are tied to the land. For our future generations of our children, we have to have a place to exist, to be who we are.”

Prayer walk for the Everglades.
Lisette Morales
Betty Osceola “warriors up,” as she calls, it by wearing her handmade traditional necklaces. Ochopee, Fla., January 7, 2021.

The number of walkers varied each day, as supporters participated as they could, and then peeled off when necessary. At one point, a few Army Corps of Engineers personnel joined the group.

Prayer walk for the Everglades.
Lisette Morales
Prayer walkers led by Miccosukee grandmother Betty Osceola (in red shirt) and Seminole artist Samuel Tommie (in grey shirt) make their way in silent prayer on top of the levee around Lake Okeechobee. Near Clyde’s Canal in Lakeport, Fla., Wednesday, February 10, 2021.

Photographer Lisette Morales documented the walk and acted as support. She participated on one of the days. Her love of the Everglades and opposition to 404 permitting is what motivated her during the lengthy demonstration.

“First of all, because I love the Everglades. It’s a place that I have found healing" said Morales. "And I really admire and applaud Betty because she is a 21st-century woman, dealing with 21st-century challenges, but honoring her traditions, honoring her culture, and doing everything she can to protect her home.”

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Lisette Morales
Lupita Vazquez rests her feet on her backpack during a break near Lakeport Lock Road, Lakeport, Fla., Wednesday, February 10, 2021. Vazquez was born and raised in Immokalee, Fla., and walked in solidarity with Betty Osceola.

Walkers started each morning with a ceremony led by Osceola in which they centered themselves and prayed, each in their own language. They would then walk in silence, 15 to 20 miles each day, observing the lake and how it varied in different areas. Osceola describes the changes:

“As we got to the Northwestern side, where you see more marsh, that’s when we heard birds, and the feeling of the lake got different. We saw osprey, eagles, wood storks, anhinga—we even saw some deer. In that section, you starting seeing the lake life very vibrant.”

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Lisette Morales
One of many monarch butterflies at Brad Phares’s ranch near Indian River Bridge in Okeechobee, Fla. Wednesday, February 10, 2021. Phares is an 8th-generation rancher as well as an artist and attorney dedicated to conservation. Phares invited the prayer walkers to camp on his property.

Samuel Tommie is a citizen of the Seminole Nation. His desire to preserve healthy water for himself and for those who come after him is what drove him to complete the 118-mile trek through the picturesque, yet arduous, Everglades.

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Lisette Morales
Seminole artist Samuel Tommie (far l.) chats with members of the SFA (Student Farmworker Alliance) and CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) at the end of the prayer walk. John Stretch Park, Clewiston, Fla., Friday, February 12, 2021. The SFA and CIW members participated in the last day of the walk.

“Do we want to leave this to our grandkids? It’s totally a mess," said Tommie. "The way things have been handled, the way the earth has been treated, is a total mess.”

Tommie too strives to respect his culture’s traditions

“The way we look at land, it’s important for us, for thousands of years, for us to say thank you for every part of this planet.”

during lunch break on the first day. You can see Lake O on the left and Betty on the right with her patchwork shirt. Julie Bergson in left and Sean McCabe in the middle..png
Lisette Morales
With Lake Okeechobee off to the left, Betty Osceola (right) talks with walkers Julie Bergson (left) and Sean McCabe (middle).

Millions of people depend on Lake Okeechobee for their water and protection from floods. Still, it was a harsh reality to these walkers that the massive lake can no longer provide them with a clean drink or a cool swim after a long hot day of walking. Betty Osceola explains that she had to remind the walkers of this fact:

“During the walk, we were sitting next to this massive lake, and I was listening to the walkers: 'Can we swim in this lake?’ ‘You can swim in it but I don’t know, if you have an open cut, you could get infected.’ ‘Can we drink this water?’ ‘No, because it’s highly contaminated.’”

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Lisette Morales
Lake Okeechobee

Despite the outlook now, the walkers hope their work will serve to get Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades back to good health. Osceola says she will continue to defend the sacred Everglades:

“We did the walk around Lake Okeechobee because we are weaving a healing medicine wheel around the lake. Not just for the waters, but for all lives of creation.”

Prayer walk for the Everglades.
Lisette Morales
Miccosukee grandmother Betty Osceola (second from l.) leads prayer walkers as they cross Fisheating Creek Bridge at sunset on State Road 78 near Lakeport, Fla., Wednesday, February 10, 2021.

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