Getting ready for the flight to Bocas, Panama!
As we embark on this journey, it is doubtless that we will make fascinating discoveries, experiment and explore, and learn an array of knowledge through our hands-on experience as well as classroom time. While this all will be very exciting, I believe it is also important to know something of the people that we will encounter, who have lived off the land and the surrounding waters, and ultimately affected the ecosystems that we will be exploring. A look into the history of the peoples of southern Florida and of the Bahamas sets the tone while a peek into the present, from culture and lifestyle to recreation and pastimes will allow us to understand and perhaps better associate ourselves with their culture. After all, it has often been said that where you are is who you are; for these few weeks then we are all people of the Keys and Bahamas, and recognizing ourselves as such will only serve to enrich our experiences.
To commence, the present-day people from the Bahamas are much different than the original inhabitants of the island. Today’s Bahamians are eighty-five percent black, an after-effect of slavery in the New World (Gordon 64). Yet when Christopher Columbus landed on San Salvador back in 1492, the inhabitants he found were much more similar to the Seminoles that lived in Florida. "Lukku-cairi" or island people, were the first settlers, deemed “Indians” by Columbus when he though he had discovered the East Indies (http://www.geographia.com/bahamas/). These Lukku-cairi or Lucayans, a group of Arawak Indians, had been around several centuries and were extremely friendly peoples, causing Columbus to believe they would make good servants. However, thanks to plague, malaria, and other “white-man” diseases, as well as overworking, these inhabitants were wiped out in a span of twenty years, under a quarter of a century (Hintz 49). It was then shortly after this time that slaves from Africa were brought as replacements, and it is from these slaves that most Bahamians of today descend. The other fifteen percent of the population, most of whom are white, lay claim as descendents of Adventurers (the first English settlers), British privateers, or perhaps even from relations of the infamous Blackbeard, who was one of many to plunder the shores of the Bahamas (Hintz 61). The Bahamas have passed through several hands in the course of history, and during its time in southern loyalists’ hands is when slavery was established there, growing chiefly cotton under the Crown’s protection. Such agriculture did not last long in the Bahamas, whose soil was not at all conducive to the climates necessary for such resources, and Britain abolished slavery in its territories in 1834 (http://www.geographia.com/bahamas/). It greatly helped the Bahamian people to have such poor soil; these conditions caused the plantations to collapse, and maintaining slaves in this demising culture proved to be more costly than freeing them (Gordon 34).
While the islands had a stint with rum running during Prohibition, real prosperity was found in tourism after World War II. This commodity employs over half the Bahamian population today (http://www.jimduke.com/bahamas/people.htm). With great foresight, tourism along with banking became the twin industries of the Bahamas, and the people of the Bahamas established themselves, and all the power no longer remained in the hands of just a few white men. Proving that they had the abilities to take care of and govern themselves, Great Britain granted the islands self-government in 1964 and changed their status from colony to Commonwealth in 1969. The next step would be complete independence, a somewhat daunting undertaking, considering that everything from language to laws were English. Yet the Bahamians were ready to undertake such a task, and in 1973, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas became its own independent nation, raising the new flag of the Bahamas that proudly displayed their independence (Gordon 51).
The history of the Bahamians and their road to independence is unique in that no shots ever had to be fired to gain this independence, and the black majority was able to peacefully and democratically control the government (www.bahamatravelnet.com/culture.html). It was a much different story for the Seminole Indians of Florida. They had to fight extensively to hold on to he independence they had, as well as fighting the disease and death that was so often brought by the “white man.”
To commence, the Seminoles were not just one tribe, but were compromised of many peoples, including Timucua, Cherokee, Apalachicola, Calusa, and Creek, to name a few. The southeast landscape that they inhabited provided good soil and resources, and they had great reverence for all parts of nature (Garbarino 14). However, changes were in store for these inhabitants with the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. The territory was quickly claimed, and after de Leon came others who reinforced the claim. St. Augustine, the first permanent European settlement in the Southeast, was founded in 1586, and soon after the English staked claims to nearby land in Georgia and other parts of the south (Garbarino 38). For a short period, when Britain exchanged Cuba for Florida with the Spanish, there was relative peace and prosperity for the Seminoles. This, however, quickly halted when Britain fell to the United States in the Revolutionary War. The fertile land of the Seminoles attracted greedy settlers who trespassed and claimed the land as their own. Not only that, but several wars later, including the War of 1812, the Creek War of 1813-14, and the war on the Florida Indians in 1817, the Seminole’s land was now officially part of the United States (Hartley 44).
In 1823, the Seminoles were to move to a reservation, where they were promised equipment, livestock, and an annual payment; in return for the 30 million acres of fertile farmland, they received around 5 million acres of land that was sandy, marshy, and basically unfit for human survival (Garbarino 42). Following this time came the Second and Third Seminole Wars, which were spurred on by the fact that when black slaves escaped from their masters, they found protection with the Seminoles (http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/northamerican/seminole.html). The Second Seminole War was one of the most costly of the United States-Indian wars, and was led by the great warrior Osceola (Lepthien 18). Captured under a white flag of truce, Osceola, along with his followers, was captured and later died in prison.
Most Seminoles then surrendered and moved to Oklahoma. Efforts to find remaining Seminoles in Florida started the Third Seminole War. Afterwards, as few as 300 Natives remained in Florida.. It was from these 300 that the Seminoles of Florida call themselves the “Unconquered People.” These Seminoles had to adapt to a whole new lifestyle in the swamplands, learning to catch alligators as well as fish, build a new style of home called chickees (palm-thatched dwellings), and live off land that everyone else saw as unusable (Garbarino 53).
From the 1920's onward, development burst in Southern Florida. The Seminoles lost hunting land to tourists and settlers. They were gradually forced into the wage labor economy. They become agricultural workers and attracted tourists with their exciting and colorful patchwork clothing. After obtaining sewing machines, this skill sky-rocketed for Seminoles, and the complex and captivating designs are a testament to creativity and culture (Garbarino 73). Tourism and bingo helps pay for schools on their reservations, and cattle and citrus groves are a primary revenue source as well. The Seminoles also maintain respect for the old ways; people still live in the chickees, wear clothing close to traditional style, and celebrate the same festivities as their ancestors (http://dhr.dos.state.fl.us/flafacts/seminole.html). The Seminoles have mastered the skill of adapting to change without entirely giving up their traditional ways. Yet unlike the Bahamians who enjoy complete independence, the Seminoles still live on reservations, but they have been able to make the most of all that has affected them and carry on with a strong sense of identity as a distinct and proud people (Garbarino 102).
Bahamians, along with their gained independence, tend to have three fundamental things in common: family, religion, and folklore. Their laid-back attitude is often misunderstood by those unaware that it evolves from years of a good life in a land where nature provides every need. “There is always time to worry about the bad things tomorrow.” Bahamians are humorous, helpful people who love to celebrate (http://www.bahamasgateway.com/bahamas_people.htm). Religion is an integral part of Bahamian life. Even the tiniest village has a church, sometimes two. Likewise, music is central to their lives as well, including African rhythms, Caribbean Calypso, English folk songs and “the uniquely Bahamian Goombay beat echo in the air. The fast-tempo of the “goom-bahhh” resonating from the drums can be traced back to the days of slavery and is used both for story-telling and dancing (http://www.geographia.com/bahamas/).”
Obeahism is a superstitious and spiritual belief, dealing with influences individuals hold towards others, or making dreams come true, or dealing with good and evil. Its origin is not quite known but assumed to be of African heritage, and practitioners use mainly bush medicine and white magic. Even around homes, one might see pieces of glass or other such objects hanging from trees and the like, warding off evil spirits (Gordon 77). While we explore the Bahamas, hopefully there will not be anyone “putting mouth on ya” (a type of curse), and hopefully no white magic threats such as “I gon read the Psalms to you” or “God don’t like ugly” will traverse our ears. If any of us should come across a sperrid (ghost/spirit) in perhaps our walks of the mangroves or nightly activities, all we need do is say “ten, Ten the Bible Ten” and we will be protected (Gordon 81).
Now if we happen to wander the woods, it is important to keep a close eye out for the chickcharnies. These elfin, birdlike creatures have piercing red eyes, three fingers, three toes and a tail. It is said that if one carries flowers or bright bits of cloth, these creatures can be charmed or at least warded off…keep this in mind with a perhaps a bright neckerchief of something bold and colorful (Gordon 283).
Now armed not only with survival skills for woods or curses, we are armed with knowledge of the people upon whose land we will be exploring. However, we have an advantage in that we also bring knowledge of our working world and of the ecosystems we will be exploring, from mangroves, to reefs, to sea grass beds. The people who have lived in these areas have enriched them through culture and tradition, but we now have the opportunity to bring a new knowledge and our own culture and ideas and implement them along with the ones already established. Create a history that will be worth remembering.
Garbarino, Merwyn S. The Seminole. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Gordon, Lesley. The Bahamas. New York: Langenscheidt Publishers, Inc., 2003
Hartley, Ellen. Osceola: The Unconquered Indian. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1973
Hintz, Martin. The Bahamas. New York: Grolier Publishing, 1997.
Lepthien, Emilie U. The Seminole. Chicago: Regensteiner Publishing Enterprises, Inc.,
The presentation will present some history and then will have some interactive parts with classmates, teaching some of the native language of Seminoles and customs/traditions of Bahamians, etc.
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