There is a major historic site in Miami, called the Miami Circle. It is one of the oldest indigenous sites in South Florida, discovered during construction excavations. It is a circle marked with holes that once held 24 poles, suggestive of a clock, and it was found in association with many artifacts attributed to the Tequesta / Tekesta people who once inhabited this region of South Florida. Due to its highly urban location and the controversy surrounding whether it would be preserved as a historic site or built over as part of the property that encompassed it, the circle itself has been left underground and marked with informative placards. I’ve never stood at this site, but I have been on Miami River tours that went past it. Its riverfront location makes it obvious, as the only spot for miles where the buildings don’t edge directly onto the shore, even with the circle itself underground.
The indigenous peoples of south Florida have a complicated history. The peoples southern Florida is best known for in modern times—the Seminoles and their Miccosukee subgroup—originated north of Florida and migrated into the peninsula in the 19th century to escape British conquest. They found the inland Everglades depopulated, as it had been for 200 years. During the Spanish colonial period, the Spanish conquerors forcibly relocated south Florida’s indigenous peoples to Cuba. This depopulation removed virtually all members of numerous tribes from the peninsula, including the Tekesta, the Jaega to their north, the Mayaimi of the interior (who gave their name to the river and then the city), the Calusa to their west, and the Tocobaga and Timucua north of the lot, and the interior stayed empty until the Muskogean Seminoles migrated south. The Spanish were characteristically uninterested in preserving anything about the indigenous people, and arranged the relocation in order to more effectively indoctrinate and enslave them, as had been done to Cuba’s indigenous Ciboney Taínos shortly before. The Spanish referred to the leaders of most of these groups as Caciques (Kasikes), the Taíno word for “Chief,” but the near-total loss of linguistic information about all of these groups means it cannot be determined whether the Tekesta, Jaega, Calusa, Mayaimi, Tocobaga, or Timucua people used this title for themselves, or whether the Spanish simply extended them a familiar reference. Like the Taínos, these six groups do not persist into modernity distinct from the mixed society that Cuba became, or from the Seminoles who most likely absorbed any who remained in the mainland.
This lack of information about South Florida’s original inhabitants lends itself to another mystery. The Straits of Florida are, as one historian put it, one of the most starkly defined cultural boundaries in the world. What is known about South Florida’s peoples is that their agricultural practices and crops nearly all followed them from Mexico, in the same manner that Mexican crops also characterized peoples as far north as Massachusetts. Mexican crops, however, were nearly unknown in the pre-Columbian Caribbean, where crops transplanted from South America instead characterized the indigenous diet. Coastal South Florida’s terrain is not terribly different from that of the larger islands, and it is well established that the Taínos and other Arawakan peoples of the Caribbean were expert seafarers who maintained trade routes and raiding practices across the Caribbean Sea. Particularly for the Lucayan subset living in the Bahamas, crossing the Straits of Florida and extending their territory into the mainland should not have been difficult, and from there, the coexistence of Arawakan and Floridian farming practices should be seen. There is limited evidence of trade and potential linguistic exchange between the known peoples of the United States’s southern Atlantic coast and the Lucayans, but no unambiguous evidence of long-term settlement. With the linguistic cohesion of both the South Floridians and the Taínos long since destroyed and with neither group having a writing system at time of conquest, the truth of this matter may never be known.
This has not stopped the two largest Taíno revivalist organizations in Puerto Rico, the Concilio Taíno Guatu-Ma-Cu a Borikén and the Nación Tribal Játibonicu Taíno de Borikén, as well as the latter’s northern chapter, from claiming all six peoples, and their historically known territories, as part of an expanded sense of Taíno-dom.
I would find this claim generous, reasonable, and even enlightened well beyond moral obligation if it took the form of recognizing that the six Floridian tribes are, for better and for worse, part of the Cuban tapestry now. Whatever traces of Tekesta, Mayaimi, and Calusa persist, do so as part of Cuban-ness, just as Ciboney vocabulary and pronunciation patterns contribute to the distinctiveness of Cuban Spanish to this day. It would be magnanimous of the major Taíno organizations to move from this fact to including their descendants in their sense of who they themselves are, as fellow indigenous people severed from much of their past and living in Taíno territory who likewise contributed to what it means to be Caribbean Hispanic. In this sense, I am delighted to see the Taíno organizations claiming the Miami Circle as a piece of themselves.
That is not the direction the Concilio and the Nación Tribal take, however. Instead, the two organizations have latched onto an apocryphal story associated with the Fountain of Youth mythos to claim most of Florida as their ancestral territory. In this story, the Lucayans named a place, “Beimini,” where the fountain supposedly lay. Juan Ponce de León then applied this name, not to the islands in the Bahamas that now bear its derivative Bimini or the site the Lucayans actually meant (somewhere in northern Central America), but to where he landed next on his search, in southwestern Florida. Records of this name outside of this story are scant to nonexistent, but this tale was sufficient for the major Taíno organizations to refer to non-panhandle Florida as Bimini thereafter. They use this term as the basis for claiming the Tekesta, Calusa, and other Floridian peoples as displaced, estranged Taínos, and the lack of clear linguistic records of Florida’s disappeared indigenous people to dare others to contradict them.
There is a legal reason for this ahistorical chicanery, as well. Much as the people of Puerto Rico themselves struggle to claim the full rights and benefits of US citizenship post-conquest, the Taíno organizations struggle to gain recognition as indigenous nations within Puerto Rico and acquire the legal status associated therewith. Given how indigenous nations in the mainland, and indigenous Hawaiians and Alaskans, suffer, it’s not clear that being recognized as one would be useful for the Concilio or Nación Tribal, nor can their territories and areas of authority be easily demarcated within Puerto Rico, but having territory on the mainland means being able to sidestep Puerto Rico’s bizarre status within the United States.
I, for one, would much rather the people of Puerto Rico and Cuba recognize and embrace our heritage en masse, and from there, honor whatever bits of it may have come from Florida well before so many of us resettled there. I would rather that indigenousness be recognized as, and regarded by all Caribbean Hispanics as, our background and our culture, and embraced accordingly. I would rather that Taíno culture (and West African culture, for that matter) be seen as a living, changing thing, as being what the peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola do rather than what the indigenous part of our ancestry did, and that this fact lead to common cause between the peoples of the northern Caribbean, the indigenous nations of the North American mainland, and the countries in Latin America where brownness is far more visible.
And I want the bits of us that are Calusa and Timucua found, recognized, and widely known because they are part of us, and not as part of a bizarre game of legal apocrypha and ahistorical mythmaking with no good endpoint or respect for truth.