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Circle Be Unbroken

By Patricia R. Wickman, Ph.D.

The discovery of the popularly named "Miami Circle" by Historic Dade Preservation Board Archaeologist Dr. Robert Carr has created a furor among non-Native advocates of historic preservation and some Native American Rights activists. The basic question is all too basic: should it be saved? What responsibility does Miami, or any community, have to safeguard the material symbols of the past? That point still has not been definitively resolved at the local level and, rapidly, the dissention has spread to the state and national levels.

Opponents of preservation say that the economic value of land itself outweighs any historic value. Arguments in favor of preservation run from a non-specific desire to preserve the past to a specific desire to preserve what non-Natives perceive as the site's value to Native Americans. "Perceive" is the key word, however. In the crack between perception and individual reality lies the truth.

The major argument over whether or not the site should be saved on historic merit alone has some particularly annoying elements nestled inside of it. The core element is no less than the great national myth of the Right of European Conquest. And its concomitant myth concerns the fundamental definition of the group for whom a past might or might not be preserved. Have "we" created an inclusionary or an exclusionary society, and how do the "outs" go about getting "in" - or, should they get in at all? These are very complex questions and the search for answers not only can but must be applied to geographic areas far larger than the condominium site by the Biscayne Bay, or even the entire state of Florida.

According to the core myth, which is one of the pillars of development in the United States, the English Europeans who settled in North America and created the United States had a sad but inevitable right to destroy all traces of previous Native American occupation, by virtue of their superior European culture and "civilization." In this nationalist scenario, the indigenous inhabitants were destroyed in the settlement process through the agencies of disease and warfare, essentially because "might makes right."

This myth persists to this very moment, clothed in the guise of "progress." And destruction in the name of progress has become an end in itself. And so, as in the case of the Miami Circle, progress (building the New - anything new) is always more desirable than preserving the Old, and this is doubly so when the old is a remnant of those indigenous people who were "inevitably destroyed" in the march of progress. It's the American Way.

Carry this philosophy into the larger story of Florida history and yet another element of the argument raises its annoying head. Even if non-Natives can agree that a Native American past can and should be considered as a legitimate element of their collective past, what part do the Native Americans currently residing in Florida have to play in this decision?

In Florida history as presented to every fourth grader in this state, the Native peoples who reside in Florida today are unrelated to the Native peoples who created the Miami Circle site. Therefore, if they (the Native peoples who reside in Florida today) choose to enter the discussion concerning the possible preservation of the site, what real weight does their opinion carry? What value should be assigned to their desires in this matter? And, last but hardly least, what are their desires in this matter?

Actually, very few people are asking the latter questions. That's one critical place where the subject of perception comes in. Unfortunately, even those Floridians with the very best intentions are, once again, chasing a myth. They are assuming that reality exists only in the shape of their own image and likeness. They are assuming, first of all, that those past peoples who created the Miami Circle are gone and it is completely up to "us" - in this case, the Euroamerican "us" who made Miami the shining city of almost-bankrupt concrete and asphalt business that it is today - to continue to decide, unilaterally, how "our" past will be remembered.

Then, the next powerful myth is that all Native Americans think with a single mind and speak with a single voice. Consequently, if we are going to exercise some degree of inclusionism and listen to the Natives, there must be only a single opinion to be considered, and that single opinion must mirror the expectations of non-Native society. In this case, that means that non-Natives - up to and including the Florida Legislators - assume from the outset that Natives have a single opinion, and that it is favorable to the preservation of every Native American site, especially if the site can be deemed (at least, by Euroamericans) to have "sacred" or "religious" connotations.

Again, however, in the case of the Miami Circle, the Native Americans who live in Florida today are not viewed as being connected in any way to the people who created the site. Therefore, the best they can hope for is to deliver an amicus curiae brief in this Court of Public Opinion. This is exactly what happened when self-identifying individuals who are not enrolled members of either of Florida's federally recognized Tribes appeared before the Florida Legislature recently and made impassioned speeches concerning the ostensible spiritual value of the Miami Circle site.

Legislators didn't appropriate $2 million solely on the merits of the uniqueness of the site or its value to Native Americans as Floridians with thousands of years of equity in this land. Nor did they reach out, respectfully, to Florida's federally recognized Native peoples to learn of their wishes in this matter. If they had, they might have appropriated more than a token amount.

But the power of those great myths of Conquest are very strong. Who are the Seminoles? Are they, indeed, adopted children of Florida who have so little equity in the state that their opinions should be disregarded? Or, are they the legitimate descendents of the "Floridians" who, for almost 15,000 years, at least, have exercised their own sovereignty in every area, including the creation of their own ceremonial sites?

The name "Seminoles" is a transliteration of an Arawak Indian and Spanish term for "free people," that is, for people who left their towns and villages in order to remain free of the demands of the Spaniards, after these Europeans began coming, in the 1500s. Their earlier homes had been spread across the territory that we know today as "Florida."

But the Seminoles' cultural kin -- that is, other tribes to whom they were related by virtue of their shared belief systems and a common family of languages -- had towns and villages from the tip of what we now call the Florida Keys to eastern Tennessee, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. By the early 1700s, some of their larger towns were on the Alachua Savanna, in the area of today's Gainesville. But these Floridians were great hunters and had long traditions of ranging over hundreds of miles southward and northward, to find game and to conduct their principal business: warfare.

The English colony called "Georgia" only came into existence in 1733. By 1763, the English would gain control of Spanish Florida as well, and very soon would write down the word "Siminolies" in English for the first time. But it is very important to remember that the word had been in use, in its Spanish and Indian forms, for a century or more before that.

And, in those earlier forms, it was being used to describe people whose ancestors had been a part of "Florida" for thousands of years before there was a Florida! Only through profound national chauvinism have non-Natives chosen to believe that the Indians themselves appeared only when the English name now applied to them appeared.

Over the course of the 1700s and early 1800s, these "Seminoles" would be joined in Florida by their cultural kin, survivors of tribes from the southern peninsula of Florida and from northward into what recently had become "Georgia" and "Alabama." But even though many of the Florida tribes would spin apart or become fragmented in the warfare of the 18th and early 19th centuries, many of their individual members survived under the single name that Euroamerican Floridians chose to apply to them, that is, as Seminoles.

Consequently, the Seminoles know that, as the Native peoples who have created organizations called The Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, they are the only survivors of that process of European settlement in the area called Florida today. Theirs are the only voices here that can speak with authority for those Abalachi, and Tequesta, and Calusa, and the hundreds of thousands of indigenous Florida peoples, many of whom survived even as their tribal names and towns appeared and disappeared over the almost-five centuries after the Europeans entered their domains.

Over the thousands of years that their ancestors have lived in the Southeast, they have created hundreds of ceremonial sites (undoubtedly thousands, but most have been destroyed by Euroamerican "progress") and locations that tied the people of this physical world to the forces of the unseen world. Tradition required that, when a site should be closed, it should be left unmolested, out of respect for the power that it represented. To tamper with that power was to throw the world out of balance. This understanding has remained a critical part of the Seminole worldview.

Bobby Billie, a Seminole "Independent" (that is, an individual unaffiliated with either Florida Tribe), told Miami stonemason Joshua Billig not to attempt to move the Circle because "For every sacred Indian site that is destroyed some sort of destruction occurs in the world" (Fort. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, 2.16.99, 12A). A circular world, such as that of the Seminoles, requires respect for its workings, and equilibrium - balance, that is, and a harmful action is sure to have repercussions.

But a lack of respect for the Native American world has been a central feature of interactions with the Europeans and Euroamericans for almost half a millenium, so far. In a letter of support, Chief James Billie congratulated Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas for his public fight to preserve the site, calling it "gratifying that [he] appreciates and respects the long and proud heritage of our ancestors. The Seminole people, as the cultural descendents of the Maskókî peoples of Florida, feel a close affiliation to these Tequesta . . ."

The destruction of the Miami Circle site, wrote Chief Billie, "would be yet another callous disregard of Indian history and traditions, and [moving the Circle would be] an instance of objectifying my people by reducing them to mere museum exhibits." There's the real bottom line on this issue, from the Seminole point of view.

Many Seminoles say that white people are white because they have no guilt. What Floridians owe to Seminoles is the same thing that all Euroamericans owe to all Native Americans in the larger sense. We owe them respect - for their beliefs, which are their right; for their heritage, which is their pride; and for their very survival, which is an accomplishment from which we all might learn.

Is this a price too high to pay? Will Miami's history wind up being written as a Corporate Board Report: all good news and zippy catch phrases designed to reinforce the short-sighted belief that it is actually possible to build a future without a past? Or, will Miami prove itself to be a community in the truest sense of the concept, that is, a setting where all of the human beings who have understood the value of the place can celebrate - and safeguard - their heritages in harmony?

Dr. Gregory Bush, professor of History at the University of Miami, spoke for at least some Miami residents when he wrote of local determination to save the site, intact: "Ours can be a place that builds on its past rather than eradicates it. The long-term investment in Miami's future as a spectacular city with a meaningful past needs to be forged by a communitywide consensus" (Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, 2.15.99, 27A).

The Seminoles understand this; they choose to live it every day. Now they are watching to see what non-Native Floridians will choose. In the simplest terms, which will be more important, human beings . . . or money?

- Dr. Patricia Wickman is the Director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Dept. of Anthropology & Genealogy.

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