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Pithlachocco's Canoes: Nature's Millennium Message?

By Dr. Patricia Wickman

Perhaps the earth really is trying to tell us something. We all know (well, most of us do) that the entire concept of a "millennium," a thousand-year cycle, is entirely arbitrary. Something that Western Christians created to organize time, and based on their determination to emphasize the importance of the arbitrary date when a person known as Jesus, the son of an elderly carpenter, was born. But years, and sets of one hundred years, or even of one thousand years really are only weak attempts to define the rhythms of the forces that we call "nature." They could never command nature or make nature conform to human expectations.

But we can open our minds to the workings of nature, even though they are beyond the understanding of human beings and beyond the powers of humans to control. That's the 'default' state of mind for Indians, but it takes a lot of effort for anyone else. For even as we attempt to define nature and capture it in words, we know that it is an entity separate from ourselves, and a force beyond our own control. We are all bound up with nature and the cycles of nature, however, and it has an impact on every facet of our lives. So, if we're half as smart as we like to think we are, maybe we ought to pay more attention to the larger messages that it seems to be trying to give us.

Case in point: the land beneath the water near Gainesville, known to non-Indian Floridians as Newnan's Lake, has just offered all of us a tremendous message. The old MaskůkÓ name for that land covered by water has long been "pithlachocco" (bithlÓ = boat, choků = structure/house), or "the place where the boats stay." Little by little, nature has caused the waters to recede, at this particular moment, in order to reveal 87 canoes, that have been 'living' on that land, some of them for as long as 5,000 years.

This is not a surprise to the Indians. Rather, as Chairman James Billie has pointed out, nature has honored the Indians by revealing this information. The Seminole people know that their ancestors have camped on, walked across, hunted on, lived on, fought over, and died in this land that white people decided to name "Florida" for countless millennia. Literally. They were the inheritors of nature's bounty and the students of nature's lessons.

The news that such a large and specialized site existed comes as a surprise to non-Indians only because too many of us have effected a radical 'shift in focus,' you might say, over time and because we have chosen repeatedly to ignore the messages of nature, for our own cultural purposes. To many, it is more important to write the past their own way than to believe that the Indians of Florida today are the descendants of the Indians who saw and used those magnificent trees, growing around the area that they called chua, the "little jug with no bottom," the place where the earth drinks the water up from time to time and lets the land breathe. These are the same people who now have the evidence of their own scientific analysis that those Indian ancestors used their water-covered place where the boats stay, not for just a few years, or a few hundred years, but for thousands of years - a cycle that was disturbed only after the coming of the Europeans. But nature will not be ignored. And what a brilliant, and dramatic, manner of delivering the message. Pithlachocco is a site unique in the entire United States, and one integrally connected to the long heritage of the American Indians.

This is the way that nature tries to get our attention, to point out something transcendently important. And this is neither the only time nor the only place where nature has confronted us with such clarity. Indeed, we have had a number of opportunities to learn of late. For example, in the recent national controversy over the remains of the so-called "Kennewick Man," nature provided us with a critical opportunity to confront our national imaging of the Indians and of their equity in this land. The intensity of national reaction made all too clear the intensity of national feelings, and the fight between those who follow nature and those who try to command it will go on for quite some time.

In South Dakota earlier this year, when nature's freezing cycle had absorbed the waters of the White Swan reservoir, for the first time in half a century, the nation was confronted with another bitter reality. The remains of many ancestors had not been removed before the damned waters of the Missouri river covered their graveyard, as the US government had promised the Sioux Indians so long ago. Women of the Yankton Sioux Braveheart Society camped, in subzero temperatures, on the frozen lakebed to protect the bones of their ancestors, and bore the remains in solemn procession to another place where they might, finally, rest in peace.

Meanwhile, in Florida, on a postage-stamp-sized piece of land beside the Miami River, nature returned another piece of the past to us and, again, the lesson was startling. The "Miami Circle," as it has come to be known, is also unique in the entire United States, and it is also a reminder of the tremendous equity of the Indians in this land. But, above all, in each of these cases, the message has always been that same: look closely at the things that you value, and compare them to the things that nature values. Look beyond your tiny human concerns and learn your place in the order of the seen and unseen universe. This is the circular world of the Indians. Realize that human beings are not at the top of nature's hierarchy. Because nature has no hierarchy. All of the elements of the world that we see and sense, and even the ones that we do not, have their own right to exist. And human beings have no unilateral right, or mandate from any god, to upset the natural order. Nature moves in its own time, not according to the dictates of arbitrary, human, desires. And its movements are inexorable. We may choose to ignore them, but only at our ultimate peril. Sooner or later, we'll have to pay attention. Let's not wait until it's too late.

- Dr. Patricia R. Wickman is Director of Anthropology and Genealogy for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. She is also the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer

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