By Matt Keene | email@example.com
On October 14, people allied with indigenous rights gathered in St Augustine, Fla. from all across the state to contest the representation of cultural history that has taken place in the area.
They were part of the American Indian Movement, Ancient Trees, and the Earth First! movement and sought to raise awareness of the interactions and genocide of native people that occurred following Spanish contact with the North American continent. The individuals came together at the Castillo de San Marcos, a military fort associated with the enslavement and subjugation of aboriginal peoples. Their message called for a retelling of the history of colonialism in North America and urged for an ending to the glorification of Juan Ponce de Leon and Pedro Menendez de Aviles, men who would be considered war criminals by today’s international laws and customs.
More specifically, they demanded the national monument be turned over to indigenous communities so that it could be converted into an educational center that celebrated aboriginal culture and enlightened visitors about the often hostile relationship between the emerging United States and its indigenous residents.
“You see a lot of people coming in, and they have no idea what happened to my people in that area,” said Bobby C Billie, a Miccosukee-Simanolee spiritual and clan leader, in an interview conducted earlier this year. “They are just coming in to have a good time.”
For the city of St Augustine, the Castillo de San Marcos plays an integral role in the way the city chooses to represent itself to the world. According to a survey prepared by FMR Associates, Inc. that studied the opinions of more than 1,000 people — including city employees, merchants, tourists and residents — the site that best identified the city is the “fort.” St Augustine has even gone as far as to base their brand identity on this survey and recently spent $14,150 to develop a new logo, merchandise, light pole banners and more, with the purpose of driving additional visitors to the city. This new brand identity prominently displays an illustrated version of the Castillo de San Marcos at its center.
“The City of St. Augustine needs to see the Castillo for what it is: a terrible place with a terrible history,” said Shannon Larsen, event organizer and co-founder of Ancient Trees. “Especially for the aboriginal indigenous people who suffered horrific conditions at the Castillo Prison and were grossly mistreated. Many did not survive — men, women and children.”
In 2012, a survey conducted by the St Johns County Tourist Development Council found that more than 60 percent of visitors chose St Augustine because of the history and culture of the city. For residents living in the oldest continuously-occupied European-established settlement in North America, this type of tourism has a huge effect. Based on 2008 statistics from the TDC, “visitors spent almost $6,000 for every man, woman and child living in St Johns County.” For residents of Florida, this will come with little surprise, as tourism drives much of the state’s economy. According to Visit Florida, the state’s marketing corporation, $67.2 billion was spent on tourism in 2011. Within the same year, 65.2 percent of domestic trips to the state were for cultural activities, equating to a total of more than $43 billion spent by tourists on cultural activities alone.
To further encourage this money train, Florida has developed a statewide initiative known as Viva Florida 500 that champions the 500 years of history since Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival in 1513. With participation from all 67 counties, the state is hoping for “an additional $1 billion in tourism spending and the creation of an additional 15,000 jobs,” according to Will Seccombe, the president of Visit Florida.
Viva Florida 500’s website states that the event “marks 500 years of history and diverse cultural heritage … [promoting] the place where the world’s cultures began to unite.” St Augustine has been actively participating in the initiative with more than 60 events in 2013 featured on the Viva Florida 500 website.
“It is important to begin to reconcile the past and accept the truth of circumstances rather than glorifying events of tragedy,” said Larsen. Larsen feels that holding events which honor individuals like Juan Ponce de Leon and Pedro Menendez de Aviles “is denying the truth and continuing the dishonoring of aboriginal indigenous people who have suffered greatly at the hands of these two individuals.”
For Gov. Rick Scott, Viva Florida 500 is “a chance to tell the world about our state, our people and our history.” The history on the encounters with the pre-established native people is vague on the Viva Florida 500 site, mentioning them only twice in the website’s “Timeline History of Florida,” where it states that “Native Americans occupy Florida” 12,000 years ago and that in 1818 was the “First Seminole War.” The rest of the timeline depicts a history with no mention of indigenous inhabitants or their relations with European settlers.
This persecution of indigenous people continued beyond the establishment of the United States, due to the ever-expanding settlement of North America and the ideology of Manifest Destiny. In the 19th Century, three wars took place in Florida, all targeted against groups of indigenous and black peoples that lived in the state. The Castillo de San Marcos became a jail housing prisoners-of-war that included the Apache, Seminole, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, Yuchi, Arapahoe, Creek, Caddo and Chiricahuas. Some of its more distinguished prisoners included Osceola, Micanopy and Coacoochee (Wild Cat). The prisoners carved symbols — representing protective spirits — into the soft coquina walls of the fort that can still be seen today.
The faded etchings remind the protestors of the struggles indigenous prisoners faced less than two hundred years ago and compel them to continue a resolute protest, holding signs, handing out pamphlets and circling the fort, praying for peace and healing.
“Each generation has it’s challenges. The one we are now faced with is to release the past pains and sufferings that keep us bound and fully accept each other and face our responsibilities with the greatest sense of integrity and truth that we can possibly bring forth,” said Larsen.