Monday, May 31, 2010



        In the last few years I have written 25 Venture Bound columns about American Indians. This reflects not only my interest in American Indians, but in the work of state and federal governments in recreating sites and opening archaeological digs as tourist attractions.
        In 2006 I visited the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village in South Dakota, a national historic landmark. The only such landmark open to the public in the state, it was constructed to provide access to both tourists and archeologists.
        When I think of Great Plains Indians, I usually think of the Sioux and Cheyenne, nomads with their herds of horses, living by following the bison and fighting with the U.S. army and each other.
       But before the Spanish left horses to run free and multiply, enabling many tribes to become mobile, other lifestyles were the norm and they continued well into the time of the white man’s arrival.
       The Mitchell site is a 1,000-year-old village with copious artifacts casting light on how the prehistoric peoples in the area survived. Similar to the Woodland Indians of Ohio and Mounds people of Cahokia, Ill., these were an agricultural people, growing corn, beans, squash and sunflowers.
       Their main protein came from bison, and the number of bones dug from their trash piles indicates they were effective hunters. How they did it is a mystery to me, since they didn’t use a bow and arrow, but used a throwing stick, or atlatl, to launch a spear.
       Several deer-shaped targets were set up behind the visitors’ center, and atlatl and spears were provided along with instructions. I hit one deer in seven tries, but how I would have gotten close enough to throw even one is beyond me.
       Our guide was upbeat about the atlatl’s possibilities: "It is important to keep your eyes on the target while throwing because the spear will naturally go to the spot you are looking." Ha!
       That the locals were successful hunters of bison is shown by the list we were given of 75 specific uses for portions of the bison. For example, the horns could be used for cups, headdresses, fire carriers, ladles, rattles, scoops, spoons and toys.
       The village was on the migration route of the bison, so the walking marketplace came to them twice a year. A deep ditch surrounded the village, supposedly to prevent the vast herds of bison from simply trampling the lodges into dust.
       Inside the visitors’ center, a lodge has been reconstructed using authentic materials: wooden poles for the framework, earth for the walls, and branches and grass for the roof. The village had 70 of these 20-foot by 40-foot lodges, each housing 10 to 20 people. These villages were always near a river that provided water for their crops and trees for their lodges and firewood for cooking. The lodges were often on a rise overlooking the river to avoid flooding during the spring thaw.
        Over time, their crops tended to exhaust the soil and their use of wood depleted the surrounding trees. When they had used up the local resources, they would move on.
        It is suspected that this group became the Arikara, a tribe closely related to the Mandan of North Dakota who became famous when Lewis and Clark wintered with them in 1804.
         The village was protected by a tall wall of logs. This certainly indicates they had some enemies they needed protection against. If they were like the Indians of the area when the white man arrived, there was constant fighting between tribes. It was by proving that he was a great warrior that a man could establish rank in his community. That many died trying to earn status through their bravery is indicated by the three- or two-to-one ratio of women to men in most villages on the Great Plains.

        What makes this site different from others I have visited is the $2 million Thomsen Center Archeodome. This large round concrete building is directly over the prime sites that are being excavated. As their brochure indicates, "The 10,000-square-foot facility is truly multipurpose, allowing archeologists to work on-site throughout the year, conduct research with visiting specialists and provide learning experiences to students and the tourist public."


       A film introduces you to the site and a guide takes you through the visitors’ center, around the grounds and through the Archeodome. Our guide, another one of those older guys who has found a new career in retirement, was excellent.
       For more information, visit the Web site at

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Panama Indian Tribes

Visitors should not neglect independent Panama tribes

       When my brother Lester was the Major in charge of the Salvation Army in Panama, I spent a month bouncing around this smallest country in Central America. Its neighbor, Costa Rica, is a great tourist attraction with its rainforests, volcanoes, Indians, tropical forests and beaches, but Panama has the same kind of attractions with better roads, plus the canal and a more colorful history.
       A cruise ship through the Panama Canal is one way to see the country, but in doing so you miss the variety of landscapes, the hundreds of species of birds and the multitude of ethic groups. Panama has some of the world’s most beautiful and biodiverse rainforests. The meeting place of birds from North and South America, it has more bird species than the United States and Canada combined: 934. While I was there, I kept running into groups of bird watchers who had come just to add to the collection of birds they had already studied.
       If you rent a car, getting around is easy, but use care around local drivers, who can be unpredictable. You’ll find the Panamanians friendly, and because the United States controlled the canal zone for so long, many speak some English. One caution: Sections of Panama City and all of Colon are considered dangerous if you’re not with a group.
       Three native tribes in the country, the Kuna, Choco and Guaymi, have maintained their distance from the general culture and kept as close as possible to the lifestyle they led before the Spanish came. Originally 40 tribes — or maybe 60, sources are vague on this point — lived within the area. Most of them fell under the influence of the Spanish and became extinct or absorbed into the overall culture.
       These three tribes have developed art forms that exist nowhere else, and the results of their skills are in great demand from tourists.
       The Choco, who live in an area just north of Colombia, had a secret weapon, a small brightly colored frog that secretes a quick-acting poison for their arrows. Because of the thick rainforest, tribesmen were hard to track, and they acted with deadly force when found. They had a tendency to kill missionaries, and one group of 500 soldiers sent against them was defeated. Panama still doesn’t interfere with their independence, but some time after my visit, they were renamed and became the Wounaan group of Darien.
       Growing in the Darien area is a palm called tagua that produces a nut that, when carved, has the consistency of ivory. The men carve these small nuts into animal forms that are brightly painted in realistic tones. In recent years, tours have been arranged to the Wounaan villages; as long as you are bargaining for their art, you no longer need to fear their poison arrows.
       Farther north toward David and the Costa Rica border are the Guaymi Indians, who live on the central mountain range of Chiriqui, and mainly they work on the coffee plantations that dot the area. They have developed several art forms. One of them is "chaquiras," wide multicolored collars or beautiful beaded necklaces that are made by the men for their own adornment.
       Driving toward Costa Rica, I found one of the men along the road dressed only in a loincloth and beads selling these necklaces. I bargained, and being in a contrary frame of mind, bought only one, which my wife frequently wears. I later regretted not buying more because they are so charming, and my daughters would have appreciated them.
       The group most tourists meet is the Kuna tribe, which controls the San Blas Islands on the Atlantic side of the country. A number of attempts were made by the Spanish and later the Panamanians to subdue them, but because of the natives’ knowledge of the waterways and accurate use of arrows, all attempts have failed.

A Kuna woman sells molas on the streets of Panama City (Wikimedia Commons)

       Locals say missionaries were embarrassed by the women going around topless and insisted they wear blouses. They provided the Kuna women with needles, thread and colored cloth and gave them sewing lessons. The women promptly turned the materials into an art form called the mola. This is "cut work stitchery," in which they begin by cutting slots and outlines of figures in the top layer of cloth, turning under the edges and allowing the color of the cloth underneath to show through. The finest of these are made of many colored layers.

An example of a mola. (Wikimedia

       Visitors to Panama found these blouses attractive and began to buy them off the Kuna women’s bodies, defeating the missionaries’ purpose. Seeing a good way to make money, the women started creating designs for sale. Selling to tourists and collectors did not change their lifestyle or morals, and they continue to be distinct from the rest of Panamanian culture.
       You will find Kuna women in their gaily colored costumes, nose rings and beaded leg and armbands at markets not only in Panama City but in the smaller communities as well. The men have adopted Western-style clothing and look dull by comparison. Nowadays you can even arrange to tour the San Blas Islands without fear of being treated as an invader.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Indian Wars


        I was certainly misinformed about the Seminole Indians of Florida. Given the trouble they gave the American army I had thought they were a major tribe with lots of members. Instead I found out they were a number of small bands from a variety of tribes who had gotten together to resist the invading and Americans and successfully fight them to a draw.
        My first reality check was at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. The Museum had eighteen sections each on a different aspect of Florida’s history and the combination provides a good coverage of the major events in the states history. The first section on the Calusa Indians shows their life style and how they had been killed off by the Spanish and the diseases that they had brought to America.
        In the early 1700s small bands of Creek Indians began making their way from Georgia and Alabama into Florida. Along the way these Indians joined with escaped slaves and refugees from other tribes to form a new group known as the Seminole.
        A later section in the museum is given over to Seminole Wars in which the U.S. government attempted to get the Seminoles to move into lands west of the Mississippi River. It emphasizes the leadership skills of Seminole chiefs who led the resistance. In 1832 after the Treaty of Paynes Landing some left, but the others prepared for war. In 1835 the Seminole leader Osceola led a vastly outnumbered resistance of about 1,400 warriors against an American army of 9000 led by Andrew Jackson. The guerrilla tactics Osceola employed had a devastating effect against the U.S. forces. Our army was not equipped to deal with hit and run tactics. We cheated. When Osceola came under a flag of truce to negotiate he was arrested and died in jail a year later. For some reason his body was buried without his head.

Seminole chief Osceola (Public Domain)

        Other war chiefs took up the battle and continued the war until 1842 at which time many Indians were moved to Creek lands west of the Mississippi. Others, however, retreated into the Everglades and the government gave up trying to conquer or eliminate them and left the fewer than 500 survivors in peace. Estimates are that it cost the government is excess of forty million dollars to fight the Seminoles, a huge amount of money at the time and probably the most expensive Indian war in our history.

The U.S. Army hunts for Seminole Indians hiding among the mangroves.
        About 1,500 U.S. soldiers died in these wars and the Seminoles never surrendered and as a result call themselves the “Unconquered People.”

        Our next contact with the Seminole story was a week later at an Elderhostel in the Everglades when we were given lectures covering later developments in their history and taken on a tour of the Collier County Museum in the Everglades.

At the Collier County Museum in the Everglades
a small Seminole village has been recreated.
        We learned that in 1855 after the third and final Seminole war about 300 Seminoles found refuge in the Everglades. The survivors developed a new culture built on the special features of the Everglades and Deep Cypress Swamp. Farms were built on the mounds the Calusa Indians had left behind. Over time they began to interact with the whites in the area. One of their money makers was to guide plume hunters (bird killers) into areas where there were still large numbers of wading birds whose feathers could be harvested for women’s hats.
        By the 1920s, the Seminole women began to sell their traditional craft products such as woodcarving, basket weaving, bead working and doll making. Men showed off their traditional skills such as alligator wrestling. Because of the money made from casinos fewer Seminole rely on selling crafts for income.
        Deaconess Harriet Bedell in 1936 became the savior of the Miccosukee and Seminoles by getting the Brighton Reservation designated. Bedell was very interested in the Indians crafts and made arrangements with the Collier Corporation to sell Indian crafts. The Miccosukee Tribe adopted her and gave her the name Inkoshopie, woman who prays.

Picture taken at the Museum of the Everglades that also has a Seminole display.

         About this time the Seminole cattle industry began which has made good money, and allowed them to expand into other areas. Since the 1930s they have gotten into the sale of duty-free tobacco, resort tourism. In 2006 they bought the Hard Rock Café chain of restaurants. In 1979 Seminoles opened the first casino on Indian land, a practice that has become a multibillion-dollar industry for tribes around the nation. Income from the casinos in recent years funded citrus groves, ecotourism and sugarcane fields.
         The grounds of the Collier County Museum had some interesting displays. The most interesting to me were two Indian camps. One was a Calusa Indian structure and one a rebuilding of a Seminole Village. They lived in small cypress pole huts called chickees, with palm-thatched roofs and open sides.
          We also visited the smaller Museum of the Everglades that also has displays on the Seminole Indians. Given time constraints we missed seeing what is probably the most complete museum about the tribe the AH-TAH-THI-KI MUSEUM.