Ancient bones to be reburied
The remains of a Tocobaga Indian will be ceremoniously returned to sacred ground.
By KAMEEL STANLEY
Published June 28, 2007
The Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History has cared for these American Indian bone fragments for four years.
[Douglas R. Clifford | Times]
[Special to the Times]
A line drawing of Tocobaga Indians hunting.
SAFETY HARBOR - In fall 2003, someone left a small, unwanted box on the doorstep of the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History.
No one thought anything of it for months, until, during a routine inventory of the museum's artifact room, workers lifted the lid.
What they found - a pile of human bones and several ancient artifacts - set off an effort that lasted nearly a year and determined the remains are those of a Tocobaga Indian who lived in the area as much as 1, 100 years ago.
And so, after considering ways to handle the remains with dignity, the museum and a local American Indian group will bury them in a ceremony this Saturday.
"This is an unusual, rare proceeding, " said Walter Bowman, the museum's educational director. "It's something the public isn't going to see, if ever, again."
The Spirit People Intertribal Family, a multitribal group, is handling the burial.
"Our burial grounds have been desecrated, " said Pamela Davison, known as Waterbird, who is the group's spiritual leader. "It is a great and tremendous honor for us to be asked to bring this ancestor back to where they belong."
In a private, sacred ceremony early Saturday, tribal leaders will prepare the bones for their final resting place, a shell mound on the museum's property.
A holy man traveling from South Carolina is the only person allowed to touch the remains, which will be covered with a shroud out of respect.
But during the public part of the ceremony at 10 a.m., people will get to experience a seldom-witnessed traditional American Indian funeral service.
Everything from the Cherokee language that will be spoken to the cultural dress and foods served afterward will be authentic, Davison said.
The event, which coincides with the museum's current Seminole exhibit, has several people excited.
"Here are the remains of people who lived in the Tampa Bay area thousands of years ago, " Bowman said. "This is fantastic."
Nicknamed by the first European explorers as "the Giants, " the Tocobaga Indians settled in the area around 900 A.D. and were known for their height, strength and fine looks.
"They were not like the Plains Indians of the West, " said Ron Fekete, who is in charge of the museum's exhibits. "The Native Americans here in Florida, they were hunters and gatherers ... extremely active."
Their diet consisted mostly of shellfish, hence the numerous shell mounds found in Pinellas County. These mounds - called "midden" - were the tribes' junkyards but became important cultural symbols.
The heavily tattooed people lived by three rules.
"You couldn't steal, murder or commit adultery, " said Fekete. "If you did any of those, you would be killed."
At upward of 6 feet tall, the athletic Tocobaga towered over the Europeans who arrived on their shores in the early 1500s.
As hunters, males would sometimes trek dozens of miles up the Mississippi River to trade with other groups.
The women were said to have had a natural agility for climbing trees, and swam with their children on their backs.
But in the end, it was that physical prowess that led to their undoing.
"They were so healthy that they had absolutely no immunity to the European diseases, " Fekete said.
Within 80 years of the first contact with the Spanish, he said, the Tocobaga had effectively been decimated.
Yet, despite all the history that's known about the Tocobaga culture, few details have emerged about the bones left on the museum's doorstep.
A University of Florida lab examination in early 2004 determined the bones included fragments of the skull, a leg, jaw and several teeth.
It is unclear whether the adult bones are male or female.
Whoever the person was, he or she deserves to finally be laid to rest, Davison said.
"I am very much looking forward to being able to participate in this because of what it means to my people, " she said.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or 445-4158.
I you go
What: Traditional burial of ancient American Indian remains.
When: 10 a.m. Saturday.
Where: Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History, 329 S Bayshore Blvd.
Why: A few years after discovering a box of bones belonging to a Tocobaga Indian, the museum and a local multitribal American Indian group will rebury the remains in a traditional ceremony out of respect.
About the Tocobaga
Hundreds of years before European adventurers arrived in Pinellas County, the Tocobaga Indians created mounds, many of which consist largely of discarded shells. Known by some explorers as "the Giants, " the Tocobaga Indians were known for their height, strength and fine looks, but they had virtually no immunity to disease and died off within a century of the conquistadors' arrival.
[Last modified June 28, 2007, 07:37:40]
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