Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Native American Tribes in Florida -- Past and Present

One of the reasons I started making palm masks was the original history behind them. Each Native American tribe that lived in Florida had a distinct artistic style and most have been preserved in nearby museums.

The Calusa were featured in Sunday’s “Special to the News Press” with the accompanying photos from Sanibel Historical Village on Sanibel Island. Curator Theresa Schober proudly watches over the displays that visually interpret the life and experiences of the Calusa Indians on a day to celebrate their contributions to Florida.

Schober has been an archaeologist and cultural resource consultant in south Florida since 1998. Most of the Calusa artifacts come from archaeological digs. If you are interested in more information visit or call 239-472-4648.

The Calusa Indians did not farm like the other Indian tribes in Florida. Instead, they fished for food on the coast, bays, rivers, and waterways. The men and boys of the tribe made nets from palm tree webbing to catch mulletpinfish, pigfish, and catfish.

The Calusa are considered to be the first "shell collectors." Shells were discarded into huge heaps. Unlike other Indian tribes, the Calusa did not make many pottery items. They used the shells for tools, utensils, jewelry, and ornaments for their shrines. Shell spears were made for fishing and hunting.

Shell mounds can still be found today in many parts of southern Florida. Environmentalists and conservation groups protect many of these remaining shell mounds. One such site is Mound Key at Estero Bay in Lee County (Theresa Schober has been instrumental in restoring Mound Key). 

The mound’s construction is made entirely of shells and clay. This site is believed to be the chief town of the Calusa, where the leader of the tribe, Chief Carlos lived. 

Archaeologists like Schober have excavated many of these mounds to learn more about these extinct people. Artifacts such as shell tools, weapons, and ornaments are on display in many Florida history museums and in the Sanibel Historical Village’s Calusa room.

What happened to these fierce sailing Indians? The Calusa tribe died out in the late 1700s. Enemy Indian tribes from Georgia and South Carolina began raiding the Calusa territory. Many Calusa were captured and sold as slaves.

In addition, diseases such as smallpox and measles were brought into the area from the Spanish and French explorers and these diseases wiped out entire villages. It is believed that the few remaining Calusa Indians left for Cuba when the Spanish turned Florida over to the British in 1763.

The Seminoles were not originally a single tribe. They were an alliance of Northern Florida and Southern Georgia natives that banded together in the 1700's to fight the European invaders, including people from the Creek, Miccosukee, Hitchiti and Oconee tribes. Later the alliance became even closer, and today the Seminoles are a united sovereign nation, even though their people speak two languages and have different cultural backgrounds.

The Seminole Nation has five different reservations in Florida, but all of them are governed by the same tribe. Big Cypress Indian Reservation is the largest, but the Hollywood Reservation is where the seat of the Seminole government is located.

There were many tribes over the ages in Florida. If you’d like to find out more, here is a library link to discover what books have been written for each tribe.