As I get older the words of my elders ring louder and longer in my mind. “We are an original people. We have always been here. We will survive.” Such messages are proven to me daily.
For instance, in Siberia, a frozen mastodon has been found and studied which led to a recent news story, placing Paleo humans in that Arctic region 45,000 years ago. These remains retained evidence which was carbon dated to set such an age, and studied to show physical evidence of the animal being hunted and wounded prior to its death.
The traditional Mohawk and linguist Tekarontake speaks at length on the strongly held belief that the Iroquoian dialects he understands internally validate an understanding of our people to 50,000 BP (years before the present). This claim can be seen spelled out on the entrance sign to the Ganienkeh Mohawk Territory.
At one time, the accepted historical threshold was very short for North American Indian presence. The challenge to it took the study of the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in western Pennsylvania by the since-recognized James Adovasio. Dr. Adovasio received professional criticism for testing the status quo thinking despite a plethora of evidence. He will release a book later in 2016 about the First Americans.
When Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter, a Harvard-educated lawyer, speaks to the Oneida historical land claims in New York State, he describes it as dating to “since time immemorial.” Not stated idly or to inflate reality, the sentiment rings loudly across the span of Iroquoia. (The Indian Country Today Media Network is an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation.)
As a student of history, I have sought easier ways of understanding where my own heritage interests and origins lie. Yet, beneath that open-mindedness is a strong belief that these answers will eventually be forthcoming, and are possibly very comprehensive in nature. Just as side scan radar revolutionized underwater shipwreck exploration accurate ground penetrating radar is also being utilized more commonly in a number of environments. Future technology may even spawn a form of time travel, which could eventually render archaeology an obsolete field of science.
The dispossession of Indian lands that occurred gradually since 1492 began with a sudden start. Yet even the final resting place of the symbolic catalyst Columbus himself is gripped by controversy. Over time, greater understanding of living history from that era will be brought to life, providing us as the descendants of those Native survivors, a point of unity in going forward. The European maxim, that philosophically states you don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have come from, remains in effect.
From that perspective, I reflect on the connections between our contemporary Native populations and the less-defined Paleo Indians of the Paleolithic era. Transcending the language gaps between these times stretches the comfort zone beyond reality for many researchers.
Even in modern cinema, this subject has been broached. The bloody but critically acclaimed 2015 western/horror film, Bone Tomahawk, utilizes a Native American academic character (“the professor”) to differentiate his own tribe from that of a stone-age cannibal group. In the dialogue, the relict, cavepeople group are called “troglodytes.”
In reality, the federally recognized tribal nations have limitations defined by the Native American Grave Reparation Act (NAGPRA) in representing a wider cultural constituency which slams headlong into the efforts of the unburdened traditional understanding of some Native activists. These individuals represent an open belief system that employs a “big tent” approach to the recognition and embrace of past Native peoples, wherever they may be found.
For instance, in south Florida, the disappearance of direct lineal ancestors to the once-dominant Calusa and Timucuan peoples has played a part in the unique history of two warm water springs there. Located in North Port, Sarasota County, the larger Warm Mineral Springs, as well as the more secluded Little Salt Spring have both been studied archaeologically since 1959, from an era when underwater breathing gear became more readily available, referred to as the Golden Age of diving.
The remains of Paleo Indians have been removed from both underwater archaeological areas, which are on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. This includes what has been described as the oldest existing brain matter found in North America, from Warm Mineral Springs. Deprived of oxygen, the water at the lower part of the springs acted as a natural preservative to the still-white brain that was brought to the surface. Shortly after the modern air was exposed to it however, decomposition quickly began. Enough evidence was retained to make the determination that the brain was at least 6,000 years old, and a charred piece of wood also taken from a lower level was dated to 10,000 years ago.
Bobbie C. Billie, a lifelong resident of south Florida and a member of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples, has tracked these and other burial sites for his entire life. He has participated in demonstrations throughout Turtle Island in order to raise awareness to the issues related to these lost peoples.
In 1995, he appeared before the North Port city commissioners in traditional regalia, as an effort to annex the Warm Mineral Springs “resort” came up for vote prior to a commercial development project. Along with other members of the Florida Native American community in attendance, Billie spoke in front of the elected body in honor of the voices that could no longer speak for themselves. The cultural display may have had a lasting effect since that annexation was voted down, remaining so until 2000 when a second vote then passed, although not without controversy.
The current status of the legendary site is that it has been completely acquired from any private ownership and is now wholly owned / operated by the City of North Port. It remains open as a public attraction and is home to a growing expatriate Eastern European population enamored by claims of health brought on by the ancient mineral waters naturally pumped into the spring each day.
According to Bobbie Billie and his holistic point of view, it is also an active burial site. The site has been plundered by adventurers and the human remains became part of private collections, according to reports that he has seen. Whether for profit, like Ralph Glidden’s infamous, similar efforts on Catalina Island off the southern coast of California were, or for more curious, private reasons, the effect is the same. Human beings being possessed by others comes at great personal cost, he reminded me.
Elder Billie said that even now, a bill is being debated in Florida that would allow citizen archaeologists to “self-report” discoveries that they might make and then go on to retain the materials at their own discretion in many cases. Furthermore, the United States Park Service is attempting to implement a sweeping change in their policies which will affect how their historical sites are managed in the future, pertaining to Native input to these American public lands. He has a lot on his plate as he takes it all in stride.
To say that there are more pressing issues facing the living to devote much to ageless, faceless boneyards, no matter their origin, is one thing. Yet by the standards of any age, when graves are dug, they are generally meant to be permanent. Lying in peace becomes more important when it’s your own bones being dredged up. The ownership of the past requires a wider vision than one’s own shadows.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.