Looking back 13,000 years ago: Florida from an indigenous perspective

We’re taking a look back on this week of Thanksgiving.

More than 13,000 years ago — well before that first Thanksgiving in the 17th century — much of what we are taught about history is not necessarily the full story but one that is told from a limited perspective.

Two University of North Florida (UNF) professors are working to tell a more complete story of Florida’s beginnings to the masses.

Related: 🔐 Before the Pilgrims, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine

Associate UNF professor Dr. Denise Bossy immerses herself in history. Sometimes she says she can almost hear voices from the past and she believes some early pioneers would be confused at how their stories are told.

“We create a world that the Spanish and French themselves wouldn’t recognize,” Bossy said. “Pedro Menendez would look around and say I don’t understand the story. Where are the indigenous people in the story?”

Pair that perspective with the artifacts found by UNF anthropologist Dr. Keith Ashley and his team and you get a more realistic snapshot.

“Well, I think the biggest find is actually not something that’s a little piece of something, but it’s actually the preserved remains of a large building,” Ashley said.

A building that would be much more sophisticated than this replica hut in Fort Caroline.

Dr. Ashley said the stains in the ground show a larger building 65 to 70 feet long that would have served as a council house.

“We all say it’s kind of that needle in a haystack that we can find something that existed 500 years,” Ashley said.

This powerhouse duo is turning local Northeast Florida history on its head by looking at the state from 13,000 years ago.

“I think we’ve just always been told a story kind of from the 1560s,” Ashley said. “That is the story of indigenous people, that is also through the lens of Europeans, whether it’s the Spanish or the French, so we really never get the indigenous perspective, then we never get a perspective that extends back 1000 years, 2000 years, 5000 years, or even 10,000 years.”

The Mocama people were here long before the French or Spanish arrived and they had control of the land and its resources. They also had their own military unit so when strangers arrived they had a plan.

“The Mocamas initially activate their border patrol who are soldiers, and they go out and make sure that the French are not a threat. The Mocamas allowed the French to come into their land, because they could find use in having military allies, and they established a treaty to formalize their relationships. They put the French in a space that doesn’t have access to food, resources, it doesn’t have a marsh so that they can control the French, the French are immediately dependent on the Mocamas for food,” Bossy said.

The Mocama people were strategizing from day one and Dr. Ashley points out you rarely hear that perspective and it was far from their first negotiation.

“What we do see is great continuity, or this long-term, uninterrupted history, and a lot of the protocols and the etiquettes and the diplomacy that’s going on with the Spanish and the French from the Mocama perspective, that’s something that’s been honed over the last 500, 1000 years, they’ve been doing that with other native groups that they’re encountering,” says Ashley.

This is just a small piece of history that these two professors are looking to unveil to a wider audience. They just received a 250,000 dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to publish a book on the native Mocama people. It’s history that doesn’t always make people feel comfortable.

“I think some people believe that by adding in new voices, older voices are going to be displaced. But in fact, by adding in the Mocamas, we better understand the French and Spanish too,” says Bossy.

“I think some of the other documents have done the opposite. They’ve actually erased indigenous people, you know, indigenous people are dominating the areas still from the French and the Spanish perspective. So I think we’re doing something that’s even better there. We’re showing both voices, but we’re centering indigenous peoples,” Ashley said.

More voices provide eye-opening discoveries that help us better understand this beautiful place we call home.

There is currently an Indigenous Fort Caroline: A Digital Walking Tour that shares more about the Mocamas and follows the main trail of the Fort Caroline National Memorial located in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

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