The chances are good that your first formal lesson about American Indians involved Thanksgiving.
It’s no surprise then that November is National American Indian Heritage Month -- or Native American Heritage Month. (Both names are commonly used.)
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. 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.
Like a lot of people, I thought “Florida’s Indians” were the Seminoles. But it’s a lot more complicated – and interesting – than that simple story line.
In recent years, I have visited some wonderful parks and museums that help tell the stories of Native Americans, from the tribes that were wiped out soon after Europeans arrived, such as the Calusa Indians, to the Seminoles, who didn’t come to Florida until the 18th century.
If you’re looking for a way to learn a bit about Florida’s Native Americans while discovering some of Florida’s out-of-the-way byways, here are five places to go, ranging from museums to historic hiking trails to kayak outings.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
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. This is a first-class museum where it’s easy to spend an hour or two.
A highlight for many visitors is a mile-long boardwalk through a spectacular cypress dome adjacent to the museum. Half-way around, there’s a village designed to look like a tourist outpost from last century, where Seminole artisans create and sell such well-known crafts as beadwork, basketry and wood carvings.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, 34725 W. Boundary Road, Clewiston. 877-902-1113. Admission: $10 adults; $7.50 seniors and students 18 and under. ahtahthiki.com
Directions from I-75: Take Exit 49 for Snake Road, and continue for roughly 17 miles into the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. The museum is on the left at the intersection of Josie Billie Highway and West Boundary Road.
Dade Battlefield Historic Park
The Dade Battlefield Historic Park is just off I-75 north of Tampa, and it illustrates our changing attitudes toward the Seminole Indians.
This peaceful park shaded by huge oak trees (some of which are 250 years old!) 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.
Without telling you what to think, the park’s video and exhibits tell a nuanced story of the people and that war. We are left to think about which side was right as we walk past the historic monument that says: “Here fell Major Dade.”
The 80-acre park preserves the land to look the way it did when the battle occurred. There’s a lovely half-mile trail through pine flatwoods, where you have a good chance of spotting gopher tortoises, woodpeckers, songbirds and hawks. The park has a playground plus a picnic area with covered shelters.
Dade Battlefield Historic Park, 7200 Battlefield Parkway, Bushnell . 352-793-4781. Admission is $3 per vehicle. floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/dade-battlefield-historic-state-park
Mark your calendar for Annual Dade Battle Re-enactment Jan. 5-6, 2019. The battle is re-enacted at 2 p.m. but there are events all day, including period soldier, Seminole and sutler camps, historic arts and crafts demonstrations, cannon firing and more. Admission is $5.
Paynes Creek Historic State Park
Paynes Creek Park in Central Florida 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 mosquitoes.
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 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 hiking trails. The park preserves lovely little Paynes’ Creek, which flows into the Peace River. The Peace is well-known for canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. At Paynes’ Creek, it’s also fun to walk across a bouncy suspension bridge and gaze into the clear creek and cypress forest.
Paynes Creek Historic State Park, 888 Lake Branch Road , Bowling Green, 863-375-4717. Admission is $3 per vehicle. floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/paynes-creek-historic-state-park
Mound Key State Archaeological Park and the Mound House
Before the Seminoles came to Florida, the state was home to more than a half dozen tribes whose people were largely wiped out.
Southwest Florida, from what is now Sarasota to Marco Island, was home to the Calusa Indians, who were great sailors and fishermen.
The Calusa were a thriving, sophisticated civilization when the Spanish landed in the 1500s and their capital was located on what is now a small wild island off Fort Myers Beach -- Mound Key State Archaeological Park. Because it is accessible only by boat and is located in beautiful Estero Bay, it makes an outstanding kayak destination.
The Calusa Indians built this island up to its towering 30 foot height with seashells, fish bones and pottery.
The best way to reach Mound Key is to kayak from Lovers Key State Park, where you can rent kayaks and get maps and directions. The water here is full of wildlife: We saw dolphins and many birds, from osprey to roseate spoonbills.
Mound Key is a great outing, but signage and interpretation is slim. Go, though, for the experience of imagining this island as the center of a whole world now vanished.
Mound Key is best accessed by boat from Lovers Key State Park, 8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach. There is no admission to Mound Key. floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/mound-key-archaeological-state-park
For a good spot nearby to learn more about the Calusa, visit the nearby Mound House in Fort Myers Beach, which has an excellent small museum about the Calusa. Highlights include replicas of some remarkable Calusa masks and a cut-away shell midden. Mound House also operates boat tours to Calusa sites, including kayak tours, and a variety of other programs.
Mound House, 451 Connecticut St., Fort Myers Beach, 239-765-0865. moundhouse.org Admission is $10 adults.
Randell Research Center, Bokeelia
The best place I’ve been to learn about the Calusa is on Pine Island Key off Fort Myers Beach at the Randell Research Center.
This is a very much out-of-the-way location, near one of my favorite Florida towns, funky Matlacha. Pronounced mat-la-SHAY, it’s a former fishing village now full of galleries, shops and restaurants.
At the Randell Research Center, we recommend walking the Calusa Heritage Trail, which is full of interesting information about the Calusa Indian community.
You’ll climb towering shell mounds, which were built by a people who dug and engineered extensive canals. The Calusa supported a population of 50,000 throughout Southwest Florida by fishing and harvesting the bounty of these coastal waters.
When the Spanish arrived, they considered the Calusa a fierce tribe. By the late 1700s, however, the Calusa were gone – victims of disease or captured and enslaved.
We learned a lot of surprising facts about the Calusa on our walk through this facility. Archaeologists found the Calusa used shark liver oil as a mosquito repellent, for example.
The information on the signage and trail maps is clear, informative and fascinating.
Randell Research Center, 13810 Waterfront Drive, Pineland, 239-283-2062. Admission is by donation. They suggest $7 for adults. floridamuseum.ufl.edu/rrc/
There are many more sites listed on the Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage, a non-profit, whose brochure can be downloaded here: trailoffloridasindianheritage.org/