MANATEE COUNTY-- Most written accounts depict the existence of the Calusa tribe as coastal people who lived off the land and harvested sea life as sustenance. But an account by a two priests in 1567 describes a darker side of the native community, one built on human sacrifice, idolization and strange burial practices. Were these accounts exaggerated to necessitate a need to convert the natives to Christianity? Or do they serve as factual insight into the world of the “fierce people?”
As early as 5,000 B.C., there was a belief held by Native Americans that water acted as a barrier between the living and the dead, according to “Florida’s First People” by Robin C. Brown. Based on archaeological findings around the state, Brown describes how the tribes of Florida laid the bodies of their dead under water and held them down with stakes. In some tribes, the bodies were wrapped with fabric woven from palm fiber. The combination of the wrappings and peat, or leaves and twigs that gathered around them at the bottom of the burial pond, preserved the bodies remarkably well. Brown says that in some of the underwater findings, human brains were discovered intact.
Brown describes a widespread fear of the dead emerging around 2,000 B.C.; natives began abandoning their belief in a watery grave, and dismantling the bodies of their dead and burying them in mounds constructed specifically for that purpose. A charnel house was built on top of the mound. As time progressed, the natives still buried the dead in the mounds, but didn’t dismantle the bodies.
Two principal groups of natives occupied Florida when the Spanish began arriving in the 1500s, the Calusa and the Timacua. Within these native nations were other subsets named after their chief. The two ethnic cultures originated from divergent sources according to “Charlotte Harbor: The Early Years” by Lindsey Williams and U.S. Cleveland. They would often fight each other even though they shared many cultural ideals.
French artist Jacques LeMoyne, the survivor of an ill-fated attempt by French Protestants to colonize present day Jacksonville, described the battles between the two tribes in his writings. He wrote that any member of the tribe who fell in battle was immediately scalped. The natives would then dry the scalps, using them as ornaments on their weapons. They would also amputate the limbs of their enemies, and those too would become decorations marking their conquest.
In one of his many paintings, LeMoyne depicts a custom that families in the tribe must offer their first-born son to the chief. The baby was sacrificed on a wooden stump in front of the mother and other spectators. After the ceremony, the women of the family formed a circle and danced around with “the demonstration of joy.”
The best description of the Calusa natives comes from a Father Juan Rogel, one of the two Jesuits who came to Florida to establish a mission during the expedition of Pedro Menendez D’ Aviles (1566-1569). Rogel said that the word Calusa meant “fierce and black” and was most likely due to the numerous charcoal tattoos on the natives’ bodies and their aggressive nature.
Rogel said the Calusa believe every man has three souls. One of them is located in the pupil of the eye; another in the shadow that one casts. The last is the image of oneself as seen in a reflection. If a person becomes ill, Rogel said that the Calusa thought one of the souls had left the body. Shamans will go out into the woods hunting down the soul. When they brought it back, they lit a fire under the entrances of the hut so it couldn’t escape again,
He wrote that the Calusa believe that two souls leave the body when a person dies, with the one in the eye remaining. Rogel said that the living would often go to the place of burial and openly speak with deceased, asking their advice as if they were alive.
In 1569, a geographer Juan Lopez De Velasco provided further insight into the Calusa customs. He said that when a child of the chief dies, each inhabitant sacrifices either a son or daughter to accompany the dead. If the chief himself dies, all of his servants were sacrificed. Velasco said that the natives killed a Christian captive once a year to feed their idol, which they thought ate eyes. Father Rogel found it imposible to make the Calusa give up such practices. According to Brown, "There were many practices unacceptable in Christianity including incest, polygamy, sodomy and human sacrafice."
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