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Viva Florida 500!: Timucuan Christmas

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Viva Florida 500! GreaterJax™ is a series of occasional pieces about Florida history and this year’s celebrations of 500 years of same in and around northeast Florida.

Archaeologists estimate that northeast Florida has been inhabited continuously for the last 12,000 years.

It’s been at least that long since anyone has thought about how Florida Indians celebrated holidays before the Europeans showed up.

Know your Timucuan

The largest indigenous tribe of Indians in this region, the Timucua nation consisted of 35 chiefdoms representing about 200,000 people who inhabited some 19,200 square miles in northeast and central Florida and southeast Georgia.

A very diverse population with an intricate political structure, the Timucua spoke many different dialects of the Timucuan language, practiced farming and trade, and lived in permanent villages of about 30 homes.

It was quite a surprise to European observers that they had to look up to make eye contact with the local Indians, as the Timucua were much taller – something like four inches taller.

Dark-haired and -eyed, the locals wore clothes made from moss and animal skins. The well-to-do wore fancier clothes.

All were extensively tattooed to illustrate social station, age, accomplishments, daily responsibilities, etc.

The Timucuan quotidian

Very little detail is known about the day-to-day lives of the Timucua pre-Columbus.

What we do know comes down to us through European observers, prinicipally the Spanish and naturalist William Bartram, who lived with Alachua people at Paynes Prairie outside of Micanopy, Fla.

It reads like the Eurocentric polemic you’d expect, except that certain respects are paid to the Timucuans’ skill as warriors.

The fact that they farmed – corn, squash, beans and other vegetables – and practiced crop rotation is not remarkable.

That their diet was one of the most protein-dense (heavy in venison and shellfish as well as cultivated beef) of the pre-Columbian cultures is not remarkable.

Nor were their schools, their systems of hospitality and reciprocity, their trading networks or their macro-politics.

How Timucuans celebrate holidays

As if typical of hunting and gathering cultures, most celebrations took place because of and around food.

Celebrations are just another way of marking time – the passage to adulthood, teaching about phases of the moon, the rise and fall of political leaders.

Most Timucuan celebrations took place at planting and harvest as wishes and hopes for good crops and thanks to nature and ancestors for plentiful food, serving as reminders about the cycle of the year and the human place in it.

When the Indians celebrated a harvest feast with St. Augustine founder Pedro Menendez in 1565, they may have told something of the truth about how they lived.

Not very much later they would have little or no incentive to.

Like other American Indians, the Timucua were put off their lands and forcibly christianized by Spanish missionaries, their numbers decimated by European diseases, warfare and plain old dirty pool.

Certainly by the time that Bartram came in 1773, Timucuans had lost some of their folk ways as well as some institutional knowledge about their own cultural practices.

Inevitably culture will change, and contact with Europeans presented the Timucua with new technology to meet the challenges of daily life.

No doubt, however, traditional Timucuan celebrations and holidays were colorful and joyful (like Christmas and Thanksgiving) and absolutely worthy of further study.

But so far, in this the 500th year since Florida’s founding, no one has bothered to find out.

-30-

©2013 All rights reserved.

OFFICIAL BIO: K Truitt is a second-generation, native Floridian born in Jacksonville. Truitt worked in public higher education for 25 years and knows newspaper publishing, printing and graphic design. Contact: kt.4examiner@yahoo.com

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