School of Tocobaga

Tocobaga and the Idea of Sustainability

written by Hermann Trappman

Everything is comparative and attitude is an enormous part of it. Rob Storter in the book Crackers in the Glades talks about the destruction of south Florida’s marine environments up into the late 1960s.

In 1765, George Gauld arrived in Tampa Bay. Referring to it as the Spanish Baie de Espiritu Santo, he describes the environment.

“Espiritu Santo [has] abundance of fish, oysters, clams…waterfowl, turkey, deer with plenty of fresh water and wood. The Spaniards resort to the Mullet Keys for the purpose of fishing, and have built huts on the principal of them, where there are likewise wells of fresh water.”

Bernard Romans arrived in the Manatee area in 1769. He described the fishery. “Their first care is to prepare their nets, and to build a hut or refit the old one; then they now furnish their slakes or stages with new string of silk grass to the wooden hooks by which the fish is to be hung up to dry; their nets and other apparatus of lines are all made of silk grass likewise.”

“The fishermen worked on shares, the captain and vessel owner receiving the lion’s share. All the fishermen and boys shared the expenses of nets, lines, provisions, and curing salt, which had to be purchased at a high price from Spanish officials in Cuba.”

“Unlike the fished-out waters around populous Cuba, the Gulfcoast waters teemed with seasonal schools of fish. Exports included mullet, sole, trout, drum, pompano, carp, turtle, shark oil, trout glue, and smoked roe. “About One Thousand Tons Weight of dry’d Salted Fish go from the western shore of the Province of East Florida, to the Havannah…and most come and go twice every Season,” he wrote. “The whole of the west coast of East Florida, is covered with fishermens’ huts and slakes…built by the Spanish fishermen from the Havannah (sic), who come annually…to the number of about thirty sail.”

Part of the problem for the Federal Government after the acquisition of Florida in 1819 -1820 were the Spanish fishermen on the West Coast. They employed both free blacks and Spanish Indians or Seminoles/Creeks. Fort Brook was established in 1824 in order to keep a watchful eye on local African Americans who had set up the Angola community in the Bradenton area.

The bountiful marine food resources naturally attracted people.  As the original people living along Florida’s west coast were exterminated, other people began to move into this resource base. Spanish fishermen arrived to harvest the bounty of our bays and bayous. African’s, escaping slavery in the northern colonies, arrived to independently fish or join the Spanish fishermen. By the time Romans described the bay, the new fishing industry was solidly established. Fish from our bays and bayous were sold to markets in Spain and distributed to far flung regions like Russia. A Pope had decreed that faithful Catholics should eat fish on Fridays. English economy after Henry the VIII forbade fish on Friday, Fishermen were hurting. So much so that when Henry’s young son, Edward VI, took over in 1547, fast days were reinstated by law — “for worldly and civil policy, to spare flesh, and use fish, for the benefit of the commonwealth, where many be fishers, and use the trade of living.”

In his 1837 book, Territory of Florida, John Lee Williams wrote:

“Fish and turtle are abundant; in the S. W. part in particular, such numerous and extensive shoals of fish are met, as almost to impede a boat in the shoal waters. The Spanish fishermen keep a schooner here, to carry fish and turtle to the Havanna. From fifteen to twenty men are constantly employed in curing them and in conveying them away to market. Sea-fowl are also exceedingly numerous. The beautiful flamingoes, in particular, appear in long files, drawn up on the beach, like bands of soldiers in red uniforms.”

For maybe two thousand years, the Tocobaga, in one form or another, maintained hegemony over this area. There seems to be a fairly consistent artifact assemblage which gradually changes over time. Although occasional cultural collapse seems to be indicated, radical shifts don’t appear to occur. Phases of the Weeden Island cultures finally morphed into the Safety Harbor cultures. The border with neighboring states certainly varied throughout that time.

The Tocobaga apparently vacated the Tampa Bay area around the early 1700s. They had been in decline since their first contact in 1511. By 1565 they were struggling with the Spanish and the Calusa. Through the 1600s their population was in free fall.  During that time the local fishery was able to strengthen and increase in numbers. I would suggest that as the Tocobaga light dimmed, Spanish and escaped slaves from the northern colonies, and other American Indians began to occupy this resource.

In comparison to even the Spanish period, fishing today is dismal. The State of Florida passed net laws trying to restrict the removal of fish from these waters. Commercial mullet fishermen as well as seasonal fishermen descend on the shallows and bays along the coast by the hundreds every year. When a school of mullet is identified, upwards of twenty boats crowd the area, the fishermen throwing castnets as fast as they can haul them in remove the mullet and prepare to throw again. Only when the school has been decimated to such a degree that the mullet breakaway as single individuals, does the frenzy end. Mullet form these schools as part of their mating ritual. Like the cod off the grand banks, when fishermen stop the mating, the fishery must collapse.

For the Tocobaga, the fish, ducks and geese were all considered brothers and sisters and thought of as sacred. Their perspective was not one of take everything that you can. The fish and the accumulated take by the people were prayed for and respected not as financial gain but as needed food to sustain life. The fish were viewed, in a way, which reflected important limits to their gift for the people. “Thanksgiving” ceremonies and celebrations in the middle of the fishing season would have allowed a healthy majority of the fish to escape. The Tocobaga, most likely shared the notion with the Calusa, that all the animals were their ancestors.

Today only the panhandle area of Florida has oysters that are permitted as safe for human consumption. Most of the shellfish have been reduced or eradicated from our shores and no longer offer any viable resource.

The Tocobaga are not about living in the past. Once a moment is gone, it cannot be retrieved. Trying to understand the past by duplicating it can be an informative study. But, whatever you learn must be applied to the present and the future. Tocobaga is about an attitude, about a connection, a web of relationships. Each person who moves into Florida, lives in the Florida they first contact. Florida started at that moment. How can we design sustainability without any history. The old timers like Rob Storter, tell us about a place that was rich in resources. Our resources are being depleted or reduced in both quantity and quality every day. Those venerable folks see our children living on resources, that are brought in from all over the world.  Many of the old timers understand that our kids don’t even have a notion of where those resources come from.

Tocobaga is an ancient connection with this landscape, with this precious soil. These Ancient People lived in their present. They would have thought it nonsense to try to live in the past. But, they believed that every event of the past built the present. They believed in honoring those who lived in this place before them, that’s all of the people, critters, plants, rocks, and soil. They celebrated the sweet water and the good pure air. They knew that they had needs and that the environment was fragile and there was a balance.

Our culture came from a Europe far away in both time and space. Those ancestors who lived in that distant place brought their understandings and beliefs here to a very different environment and history. They believed that only their understandings and religions were good and correct. Here, on this place, they tried to erase the understandings and religious convictions which had grown out of this soil over millennium. They brought the faith of dominion over the planet, even though they couldn’t get control over themselves. Sustainability was as foreign to them as an alligator. If it didn’t do anything for them, it was meaningless and okay to absolutely destroy. If they want coal, destroy a mountain. If they want wood, destroy a forest. Nothing mattered but their needs.

Each of us is an important player in the story of sustainability. The Tocobaga studied their environment and its resources very carefully. Women nursed for four to four-and-a-half years and took steps not to get pregnant during that time. The real goal wasn’t just reproduction, but quality of life. It’s odd, but Spanish accounts indicate that the gratification of sexual pleasure was much more liberal than in Europe. Homosexuality was viewed as a natural part of the system, both male and female. Homosexuals were just required to exhibit their preference in a way that was recognizable by the community so that no mistakes were made. Gratification was not limited to coitus alone. Touching and loving were considered a part of nurturing. But, reproduction was considered very sublime.

Because a child is considered very special, pregnancy was planed by family, and environmental indications. That the stars were properly aligned, that environmental considerations had been viewed, that the ancestors had been consulted, and that the community spirit was considered, all figured into the hope for a healthy, strong baby. Some of the Seminoles still practice these ideas today. On the day of delivery, the woman’s friends gathered to rub her body with the crushed leaves of red (sweet) bay. It was believed that it made the delivery go smother. See Healing Plants by Alice Micco Snow and Susan Enns Stans, page 83-84.

For both men and women, the forests of Florida was a veritable medicine chest. Medicine men helped men stay healthy and medicine women helped women. There was no concept of a healer. The person with the problem was part of the healing process. The medicine person provided an expertise which extended back many generations. In the case of women, if a young girl showed an enthusiasm for the healing arts, folks took note of it. They watched as she grew up and raised a family. The level of her curiosity and her natural desire to help and nurture were evaluated. As she matured into an age when her children were grown and her interest was still very strong, she would begin an apprenticeship. Medicine women would take in and watch to see if she had a special leaning. Always she was encouraged to follow her unique path.

A red bay tree is not just a red bay. Each tree is like a human being with a personality and its own spirit. Each tree grows from a specific soil. That soil and the habitat surrounding that red bay influences its chemistry. The other trees growing around it, the amount of shade it receives, the insect damage to the leaves, all influences its chemistry. A medicine woman knows all the choices in her area. It’s a very long and intense study. It’s a lifetime of very careful observation.

Because the American Indians were powerful students of their world, hunting became a problem for them. They saw eagles and osprey snatch fish out of the water. They knew that the wolf and the puma hunted. Where the animals all knew their place, humans had to learn theirs. They believed that they were the younger brother and sister of all the animals. Animals killed without anger or arrogance. They killed to defend themselves or for food. And so, the Indians devised a way to hunt without the curse of murder. With the deer’s last breath, the Indian brother prayed for the deer like this.

“I am sorry oh deer for stopping your life, I know that it was rich and good for you. But, your life will nourish and feed my family. They will praise you for your gift. May your spirit find its way and return as strong young deer to play and grow healthy in these fields.”

To this end, the Indians learned to burn the tangle of plants which could develop on the landscape. Some plants, such as wiregrass and lupines, like fire every year. Some, such as palmetto, want fire every four years. Some, such as sand pine, need fire every seven years. The plants which make up our fire-dependent communities, all require fire at different times in the cycle.

The new growth was enriched by the ash, filled with nutrition that gave the deer strong healthy bodies. Fire also enriched the fields in which they grew their crops. Fire enriched the forests so that the animals lived a good life. The Indians studied the weather, watching the clouds, feeling the wind. When they saw the weather was right, they burned. The deer lived in deer parks with little undergrowth and good forage.

Not everyone hunted. There were medicine men, leaders, fishermen, wood workers, and warriors who didn’t hunt. Hunters shared their kill and so they only took what was needed. Many seasons saw the hunters pursuing other skills. Sometimes warriors, or farmers, or fishermen went with the hunters. Hunters worked to make their equipment the best it could be. When they hunted, they killed as quickly as possible. It was the hunters and some medicine people who made the fires. They knew that the forest and all the animals were sacred.