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Calusa Days are Here Again

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Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2016 10:50 am | Updated: 10:55 am, Tue Mar 15, 2016.

For the eighth year in a row, Everglades National Park (the Park) will celebrate the history of the ancient Calusa Indians who lived on the southwest coast of Florida 1,000 years ago in the Ten Thousand Island area. The weeklong celebration will take place from March 14th to the 19th, at the Park's Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. There will be stories and demonstrations of how the Calusa lived during the Calusa Days event.

Who were the Calusa and what makes them so interesting? The Calusa were a tribe of native Indians that dominated the area we know as south Florida, politically and economically, for most of their reign from about 1000 A.D. to the mid-1750's. The dominance of the Calusa Indians was not due to their well-developed skills of diplomacy; rather it was because they were a warring tribe. One of their most famous violent encounters with the Spanish is believed to have been in 1513 with Juan Ponce De Leon who is credited with claiming Florida for the Spanish Crown.

The reputation of the Calusa for performing human sacrificial rituals kept the Spanish from settling the area for over 200 years. The one weakness of the Calusa, that is believed to have eventually led to their demise, was their lack of immunity to European diseases such as small pox and influenza that were unintentionally introduced by the Spaniards.

In his memoir written in 1575, Hernando D'Escalante Fontaneda describes what it was like to live with the Calusa. Fontaneda knew so much about the Calusa because he was violently kidnapped by them after the ship he was aboard wrecked somewhere along the south Florida coast when he was 13 years old. He was held captive until rescued 17 years later at 30 years old! He describes the Calusa as wearing very little clothing and living in oval huts covered with mud and thatched reed and straw.

Fontaneda reported that the Calusa had vegetable gardens, but most food was hunted and gathered. In fact, the Calusa were one of the few complex societies that did not have to base their survival on agriculture because food was so easy to acquire in the wild. Their main settlements were along the coast where they were able to sustain themselves on the plentiful fish, crabs, and oysters found in the bays, mangrove forests, and estuaries. They fished with hand woven nets made out of palm fibers and fish hooks made from bone, wood, and shells. When they hunted deer, rabbit, or raccoon they used a spear known as an "atlatl". The style of the atlatl spear is the same one used by many primitive peoples for over 20,000 years. These spears were also used as weapons.

The Calusa spent a lot of time traveling by water. They built canoes out of hollowed out cypress and pine logs. They cut down trees with primitive axes made of wooden handles and conch shells. Instead of carving out the interior of the canoe they used fire to slowly burn away the bark and wood until there was a hole big enough for at least one man to sit and pole or paddle. Evidence of ancient canals, believed dug by the Calusa, have been found within the Everglades in various places between their settlements and larger towns. They also built canals to access major interior waterways, which allowed them to travel long distances north of Lake Okeechobee.

Artifacts that tell us what we know about the Calusa largely come from a series of excavations along the coast on Key Marco. These excavation sites were started in 1896 by archeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing. Deep within mounds of earth and discarded shells, known as middens, he found canoes, house posts, fishing nets, bowls, shell tools, weapons, pottery, drinking vessels, painted masks, and animal figureheads.

Cushing brought along a colleague to his excavations, Wells M. Sawyer, who was a photographer and artist. Sawyer took black and white photos and painted in color specimens found at the site. The photos and paintings are in many cases the only surviving record of how the original masks and tools looked. The colors were limited to blue, black, gray, and brownish-red pigments derived from plant extracts. It is not known what the masks represented, but some seem to resemble animals and others humans or depictions of their gods.

Examples of weaving are rarely found at excavation sites because the objects decompose so quickly, but the skill of basic weaving was crucial to the Calusa Indians. The Calusa most likely used palm fronds to weave bags and bowls to store and carry their food supplies and light equipment. Current knowledge of how the Calusa weaved comes from other tribes who still practice this skill, which is mostly unchanged.

The Gulf Coast Ranger Programs during Calusa Days will feature a telling of the history of the Calusa Indians daily from March 14th-19th. The programs will run from 11am-noon, and no reservations are required. Rachael Kangas from the Florida Public Archaeology Network will join the Park on March 17th from 3pm-4pm to offer a class called'4,000 Years in the Making: Prehistoric Pottery Workshop for Adults.' Rachael will teach participants how archaeologists use pottery to learn about prehistoric cultures. They will also try their hand at making a pot using the same building and decorating techniques as the Calusa over 1,000 years ago. Reservations are required as space is limited. Please make your reservations early by calling (239) 695-3311.

The main events of Calusa Days will take place on March 19th from 10am-3pm. The day will be filled with ranger led programs, canoe trips, and exhibits. The exhibits include examples of shell tools, fishing nets, weaving, pottery, masks, and a dugout canoe using the materials and style of the Calusa.

All events will take place at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center located at 815 Oyster Bar Lane in Everglades City.

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