It’s not a coincidence that the month we celebrate the first Thanksgiving is also Native American Heritage Month.
America’s native people worked for decades to get “an American Indian Day” proclaimed. (In 1914, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode horseback from state to state seeking approval for a day to honor Indians, according to http://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov.) Finally, in 1990 President George H. W. Bush named November as National American Indian Heritage Month.
I had lived in Florida a long time before I discovered the rich, fascinating and often tragic history of Native Americans here.
In recent years, however, I have visited some wonderful parks and museums that help tell the stories of that history, and the more I learn, the more interested I am.
If you’re looking for a way to learn a bit about Florida’s Native Americans, here are some places to go and things to do, ranging from museums to kayak outings to bike trips.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum,which is located on the Big Cypress reservation of the Seminole Tribe, opens with a dramatic multi-screen media presentation and its well-designed dioramas and exhibits explain Seminole history and traditions. A highlight for many visitors is the one-and-a-half-mile boardwalk through a cypress swamp adjacent to the museum. This is a first-class museum where it’s easy to spend an hour or two.
The Miami Circle is a rare saved-from-the-bulldozer story – and a great place to learn about Florida’s early residents.
About 15 years ago, another luxury condo was planned for a prime riverfront location in downtown Miami. During the routine review of the site by county archaeologists, workers discovered a number of holes cut into the Oolitic limestone bedrock. As they explored, they discovered the holes formed a 38-foot circle, what turned out to be a complex and planned architecture unique to the Tequesta Indians. Eventually, the site that got named the Miami Circle was preserved and opened in February 2011 as a small park.
Here’s a guide to visiting it and how to make a day of walking or bicycling along Biscayne Bay.
The Dade Battlefield Historic Park is just off I-75 north of Tampa, and it illustrates well our changing attitudes toward the Seminole Indians.
This beautiful, peaceful park shaded by huge arching oak trees was the site of a major battle in the Second Seminole War. Maj. Francis L. Dade emerged a hero — he and all but three of his 106 men were killed here in an ambush by Seminole Indians in 1835.
But the park’s video and exhibits tell a fuller story. In the Second Seminole War, the Native Americans were resisting the U.S. government’s attempts to move them to Oklahoma. The Seminoles had welcomed former slaves as brothers, much to the disapproval of the white Southerners trying to force them from their land. Who are the heroes here? Here’s a guide to visiting the battlefield.
Paynes Creek Historic State Park
Paynes Creek Historic State Park is another out-of-the-way state park that is a joy to discover.
Paynes Creek Park marks the site of a fort from the Seminole War era. (Don’t be put off, but the fort was abandoned because of the disease carrying mosquitos.) The park preserves an 1895 monument to commemorate the deaths of two settlers at the hands of Seminole Indians.
A small well-done museum tells the story: Basically, it was a convenience store robbery of its days. A few renegade Seminoles killed the settlers manning the trading post. Unfortunately, despite the Seminole’s tribe’s attempt to make amends — they turned in the offenders to authorities — the incident became a way to rationalize efforts to eject the Indians from Florida.
Payne’s Creek Park has many lovely hiking trails. The park preserves lovely little Paynes’ Creek, which flows into the Peace River. It’s also fun to walk across a bouncy suspension bridge and gaze into the clear creek and cypress forest. Here’s a guide to a scenic drive through Florida Cracker country that includes Paynes Creek Historic Park.
This outing involves a wonderful kayak trip: Mound Key is an uninhabited island and state park in Estero Bay, near Fort Myers Beach, reachable only by boat.
The Calusa Indians, a thriving civilization in Florida when the Spanish landed in the 1500s, are credited with building the key to its towering 30 foot height with seashells, fish bones and pottery.
You’ve probably seen Indian burial mounds and shell middens, but have you walked inside one?
You can at Historic Spanish Point in Osprey (about halfway between Venice and Sarasota.) There are shell middens all over Florida, but this is the only one that was cut in half, enclosed in glass and put on public display.
This “Window To The Past” is enclosed within the walls of a small museum where ancient history is exposed in words and pictures. And then you look through the glass and imagine what life was like thousands of years ago.The excavation is a cutaway of life. Amid the pile of shells, you’ll find remnants of prehistoric pottery and tools the Indians used in their daily life. Learn more about Historic Spanish Point.
There are dozens of other great places to explore and there’s a terrific website with a map and more information about The Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage.