Saturday, February 20, 2010

Florida's Calusa Indians


        Throughout our tour of the Everglades we kept running into displays concerning the Calusa Indians, but never ran into a site that was totally committed to their history. Guides would usually mention them, and on one occasion a speaker at the Elderhostel we attended gave a more complete history.
        Our first introduction to the Calusa was at the Tallahassee History Museum. The history starts with the artifacts from the earliest Native Americans and includes a full scale skeleton of a mastodon. Ten thousand years ago south Florida was a dry savanna with mega fauna such as mammoths and giant sloths. Later at the Collier County Museum we were introduced to the skeleton of a giant sloth. Six thousand years ago the global warning contributed to the dying out of the giant animals.

Giant sloths provided food for the earliest Indians in Florida.

       The Tallahassee Museum has a interesting tableau with life-sized figures that gave us a good overview of their tools and what they ate. Without any stone or metal tools they made excellent canoes by burning out the central portion of a log with a slow burning fire. Nearby were a number of canoes that they had made. An archeologist at the Collier County Museum said the Calusa Indians developed their culture about 2000 years ago. Although they had no metal or stones available, he showed us tools they had made out of shells that took the place of axes, hammers, awls and grinders...
       Because food such as fish, shellfish and birds was so readily available, they had the free time needed to develop a significant culture of art, carving elaborate masks and various artifacts for decoration and for religious and ceremonial purposes.

The Calusa were an island people who lived mainly on what the sea gave them.

       The island world they lived in exists in a vast expanse of water that is only four feet deep. One night we had a speaker impersonating a hundred-year-old man who explained how some of the islands had been created by the Calusa Indians living in the area 2000 years ago. They had built some of the islands of oyster shells and earth. On our boat trip through the 10,000 Islands the guide pointed out one area with many mounds indicating an Indian burial ground.
        Besides digging canals and burying their dead the Calusa constructed temples and other important building on the land they had created.
       The reports of the Spanish who first met them were that they were ruled by a single chief, who was supported by a strong military. They had a class structure with nobles, commoners and slaves, and collected tribute from other Indians in southern Florida. When the Spanish announced they were claiming the area for themselves, the Calusa saw this as a joke, since the Spanish probably averaged five feet tall and the Indians six feet tall.
        At the Collier County Museum a small Calusa village has also been built demonstrating how they used shells to create mounds in the isles area that they could live on. An archeologist was also on hand in a small building showing artifacts that have been gathered in the area. Other museums we visited also had artifacts, but little is actually known about these people.

With no stones or metals the Calusa made their tools from sea shells.

        They probably died out due to the diseases the Spanish brought into the country for which they had no immunity. Some were also killed by the Spanish. One of our guides believes a small number escaped to Cuba since signs of them have been found in the Catholic churches there.
The Collier County Museum has a reconstructed mound showing how the Calusa Indians built them of shells and earth.

Thursday, February 4, 2010



       Ataloa Lodge Museum on the Bacone College campus in Muskogee, Oklahoma had been recommended as a small museum with an interesting collection of Indian art. The liberal arts college of 900 students has about 30 percent Native American students and teaches a number of Indian languages. The school was originally founded in 1888 as a university for Indian students. Housed in an old lodge the museum was established in 1932 and is Native American operated.
       Curator John Timothy at the Ataloa Lodge Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma, shows off one of the gems of the Indian collection.

       We were fortunate to get John Timothy as our guide for the morning. John told us he had really lucked out in becoming a curator of art. He was able to meet so many interesting people who visited there. He also taught art, especially Indian bead work, at the college.
       The lodge is a small venue of only a few rooms, but includes 20,000 pieces of both traditional and contemporary Native American art. The lodge was built of native sandstone by students at the college. The massive fireplace in the lodge is made from stones from all fifty states representing the widespread habitat of Native Americans.
  An Indian woman’s dress decorated with precious elk teeth.

       John, a Creek, pointed out many of the interesting features. I was attracted by an Indian woman’s dress that he said was decorated with elk teeth, a form of ivory that was as precious to them as gold is to us.
       A painting of a 14th century Italian Madonna and child with Mary and Jesus in 14th century dress seems natural, but a painting of a Creek Madonna and child came as a surprise as did a Creek Jesus on the cross. In the painting the Creeks’ enemies, the Pawnee Indians, are portrayed in the role of the Romans.
A painting of a Creek Madonna and child

       A large glass case holds 88 Katrina dolls donated by Dr. Julius LaCroix. It is one of the largest collections in the U.S. The only larger collection I have seen is at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
       John had highlighted a painting by Jerome Tiger, a fellow Creek, who lived fast, produced great art both in painting and sculpture and died at 26 in a shooting accident. Tiger was very productive and his paintings hang in a variety of the best museums in the Southwest. John said Tiger’s daughter was also a talented artist and had a studio nearby.

        On John’s advice we visited Tiger Gallery where Dana Tiger met us. Her father died where she was only five. She not only is a productive artist, but her children are moving in the same direction. She said her teen age son, who has already won national art contests, is a natural artist and very spontaneous in his art while she and her daughter have to work at it.
        The son has had failures; one sculpture collapsed because he didn’t understand underlying structure, but another sculpture won a national award for young people. Her card says, “Honoring the historical dignity and contemporary determination of Native women.” Her paintings of active women place her as a strong feminist. My wife, Carla, was so taken with a painting of four women on charging steeds she bought a signed, numbered print that now hangs above our fireplace.
Dana Tiger, a Creek Indian artist, signs one of her prints for a customer.

       Dana said she worried about making it as an artist and recently when ill decided to go the starving artist route and sell 100 small pictures for $50 a piece. She paints them rapidly and has sold the first 95 and is working on the last few. Her original paintings usually sell for over a thousand dollars.
       Later in the week at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa we discovered a modern Indian artist, Allan Houser, and his sons Philip and Bob Haozous. Their work was in a special display filling four of the central rooms. Houser’s work consisted of a range of sculptures, some very modern in style others more traditional. The walls were lined with paintings of Indian life, some as watercolors.
        The surprise was that we had been seeing his work for years and hadn’t made the connection that the pieces were done by the same person. His work is in two dozen major museums around the U.S. and we had seen his work in at least eight of them including the United Nations, National Museum of the American Indian, Haskell Institute, and Heard Museum.
  Allen Houser’s “Rain Arrow” that stands in front of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa

       I believe people inherit certain potentials from their ancestors, artistic talent being one of them. I am impressed with the number of Indian artists who work in paints and sculpture and wonder if there is a heavy loading of genetic artistic talent in some tribes such as the Creek, Navaho, and Hopi.