The Last Florida Indians Will Now Die

By  |  July 28, 2016
Eric Ogden/Trunk Archive Eric Ogden/Trunk Archive

The Westward Plight of the Apalachee

 

I am drawn to the end, the end of the road, the end of the story, the last tribe, the final tree left standing in the forest, the ultimate flare of energy that extinguishes that which came before and makes room for that which shall come next. I have lived on the remote Pacific islands of Yap. I have lived with the Inuit deep in the tundra. I have lived in the steel and concrete hum of one of the planet’s most populous cities. What I know is this: across the globe, things are changing swiftly. The past is disappearing.

On a late summer day, I depart New Orleans and head for Alexandria, a small city on the Red River, then bear east on Highway 167 toward Pineville, passing the Truthway Church, the Country Livin’ Campground, and a tattoo parlor in a geodesic dome. Left on Libuse Cutoff Road, a windy drive through piney woods. The air is oven-warm and a breeze rains lovebugs against my windshield. Down a dirt lane, I park under a pine grove. I spot the old man I’m looking for standing beside the front door of a small white home, dressed in charcoal slacks, braided belt, and red suspenders over a pin-striped dress shirt, snow-white hair slicked back. He gazes with shiny, vacant eyes at the treetops, as if he has just stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, only he has no cigarettes. The last chief of the Apalachee beckons me in.

The house’s living room, stuffed with sofas, opens to a kitchen. Grandma B sits in a big, soft chair, wearing a shirt patterned with pretty blue spots. She is weary but smiling. I hand her the pralines I brought from the city. Chief Gilmer Bennett takes a spot on the couch, looking like a sad old circus bear.

“He’s got a problem in his liver,” says Grandma B, a bit aggressively, as if I were somehow at fault. 

“You should have seen him a few weeks ago,” she continues. “Belly was swollen up so big you couldn’t even see his feet, it was like he didn’t have feet. They drained six bottles of fluid from his stomach, twenty ounces each.” 

I nod, noticing her feet. Grandma B wears no socks and there are Band-Aids on her toes—diabetes. 

“They ain’t gonna give the Indian back nothing that he owned,” says Chief Bennett, perking up. “He owned the whole country and he ain’t gonna get back one foot.”

Grandma B nods. “White caps killed his grandfather. They bludgeoned him.” 

“They killed our people on their knees in the church!” wails Chief. 

“One hundred years we hid in Bayou Cypre,” says Grandma B. “If we hadn’t, there wouldn’t be any of us left.”

The family occupies three separate houses on a pine-shaded plot of land, and word of my arrival has gotten around the compound. There is TJ, Chief and Grandma B’s eldest son, wearing a shirt that says united states of america, home of the brave, with a bald eagle and billowing flag. And cheery daughter Zina, in cutoff jean shorts and a jean vest. Of particular note is Zina’s son, Robert, a lean and floppy young man, like a bean plant falling over on itself, in beat-up white Converse All Stars. He wears a woodsy plaid shirt, a ponytail of long black hair, a thin mustache, jeans worn ragged at the cuffs—the forgotten tribe’s token hipster. Grandma B bids of him what grandmas bid of their grandsons the world over: to work that darn-fangled DVD machine; it is movie time. 

 

On May 25, 1539, a nine-ship armada from Havana under the command of Hernando de Soto anchors off Longboat Key on the Gulf Coast of Central Florida. Like a starship bound for Mars, the fleet contains everything the Spaniards imagine they’ll need to survive in the New World: tailors, shoemakers, a stocking maker, a notary, a blacksmith, a trumpeter, cavalry and infantry—700 men and women in total—220 horses, attack dogs, a drove of pigs, and supplies for eighteen months. The goal is to establish a Spanish colony and discover precious metals. At the time, there are roughly 350,000 Indians in Florida populating hundreds of different tribes. 

With 500 men, de Soto travels north up the peninsula, into the land of the Ocale Indians. In search of gold and silver, the Spaniards encounter inhospitable marsh, and hardly any food in the wild. At the Timucua village of Aguacaleyquen, the chief advises de Soto to go northwest, where the land is fertile and loaded with riches. The Spaniards march peacefully through longleaf pine forests and camp on an open plain at the edge of a swamp. The next morning, they reach a river, opposite the palmetto-lined shores of Apalachee territory. Foot soldiers cross a narrow bridge, and those on horses plunge into the water. Then they emerge: Indians in deerskin loincloths with bodies painted in red ochre, stepping out from behind large trees, popping up from the undergrowth. A swarm of arrows sails through the air. The volley fells one Spanish horse and wounds five. Ten infantrymen are thrown into the water. The Apalachee warriors rush to behead them, led by a big man with a great plume of feathers on his head. A rout is at hand. Gonzalo Silvestre gets the attention of Antón Galván, who has fallen from his horse and lies wounded in the cool water. Silvestre indicates the chief, moving tree to tree like a panther. Galván waits until the man is so close he can see the ochre on his arms, then pulls back his crossbow and fires a dart directly into the center of the great man’s naked chest. The stunned native turns to his men and, in his own tongue, cries: “These traitors have killed me!” 

Skirmishes continue, but, in several days, de Soto has established himself in the Apalachee capital of Anhaica, present-day Tallahassee. His army winters there, feasting on the corn, beans, pumpkins, cucumbers, and plums that the Apalachee grow in well-tended plots. They have developed a sound bureaucracy to enable their farming. There are hamlets composed of five to seven farming families, chiefs to rule the hamlets, other chiefs to rule groups of hamlet chiefs, and one paramount chief to rule everyone. Their nation is 50,000 strong. The tribe has such a far-reaching reputation that explorers will name eastern America’s 1,500-mile-long mountain range after them: the Appalachians. 

The Apalachee’s vigor is partly a product of local geography. Their territory, unlike anywhere else in Florida, lies across a belt of fertile red clay hills. And it is in the hills that the Apalachee hide out, all through the winter of 1539, sporadically attacking the Spaniards, beheading a man here, killing a horse there. In one instance, a native who had been gathering beans faces seven Spaniards on horseback with only his bow and arrow, managing to injure each and every horse and bash one of the soldier’s heads before being fatally lanced. 

But the Indians are outmatched. 

 

As a child, I learned of certain native tribes and their respective homelands—the Cherokee in the South, the Navajo in the Southwest, the Iroquois in New York State. What I wasn’t taught is that these tribes exist because they were defeated, and in defeat they signed treaties with the U.S. government. As awful as their lot was, these treaty tribes are now recognized by the federal government, meaning at least some money is available for healthcare, housing, and schools. These tribes also have the right to operate casinos. Perhaps most significantly, they have the legal right to exist, a spot in the record. They will be remembered, if only because some bureaucrat has made a mark in a list.

Throughout the twentieth century, it took an act of Congress to grant a tribe federal recognition, a faulty system that changed in 1978 when Congress established seven legal criteria by which the Bureau of Indian Affairs could identify an Indian tribe. There are two significant criteria: (1) The tribe must have operated continuously since 1900; and (2) A predominant portion of the tribe must have existed as a distinct community from historical times to the present. Today, 567 tribes have federal recognition. Only seventeen have gained it since 1978.

And yet, speckled across the country, and especially throughout the South, are dozens of unrecognized tribes, some consisting of just a few families—like Chief Bennett and Grandma B—living on a withering vine of tradition, or no tradition at all. These forgotten tribes have been unable to gain federal recognition, and they probably never will. Chief Bennett and Grandma B worked for decades to achieve recognition, sniffing out historical documents and hiring archaeologists, but to no avail, and they no longer have enough energy or money to keep up the fight. 

These days, recognition has become big business. To prove the seven criteria requires hiring a million-dollar legal and ethnological team. In many cases, groups are backed by gaming companies eager to develop casinos, and neighboring tribes who already have casinos commonly object to new tribes being recognized. More than a few phony tribes have sprung up to take advantage of the process. It is hard to say if there are really any authentic tribes left anywhere.

“What would you tell the people of the future about your tribe?” I ask Chief Bennett. “People clueless to the fact that a group called the Apalachee ever even existed?” 

Chief ponders this for a moment, then looks up with watery eyes, a glimmer of pride momentarily having returned. “That we were good honest Christian people,” he says, “and we were the first Indian Catholics in the United States.”

 

Little is known of the Apalachee gods. There are gods of thunder and rain and a “woman of the sun,” and their existence is manifested in the play of an intense game involving a clay-filled buckskin ball and a goalpost crowned with a fake eagle’s nest. 

The Spaniards establish missions across Apalachee territory in the 1630s, and later ban the ballgame. Indians are baptized, and regularly file into church for services. Some Indians welcome the Christian God, but the mission system is really just a way to extract food from the Apalachee’s rich land and labor from their bodies. Men are forced to build farms and forts across the Florida peninsula, and while they are away, the Spaniards rape the women. In at least one instance, an Indian woman is whipped to the point of miscarriage. Juana Cathalina, wife of a Spanish captain, is known for particularly cruel treatment. One morning she summons an Apalachee mother to gather chestnuts for her. The woman objects, as her disabled child needs constant supervision. Cathalina promises to tend to the child while the woman is in the fields, but when the Indian returns that evening she discovers that her child has fallen into a pond and drowned. 

By the time James Moore, the British governor of South Carolina, and his army of Creek Indians storm the Florida missions in 1702, Spanish-introduced diseases such as bubonic plague, chicken pox, malaria, and scarlet fever have already reduced the Apalachee population to 8,000. But Moore is more monstrous than any disease. Over a period of several months Moore and his men kill thousands of Apalachee. They torture them, cutting out their tongues, slashing their bodies, and placing burning splinters in the wounds. Others are burned alive, slowly, from morning till sunset. As the flames lap their limbs, the victims declare: “Make more fire so that our hearts may be allowed to suffer for our souls. We go to enjoy God as Christians.” After Moore’s rampage, just two hundred Apalachee remain in their homeland. The historical record, penned by the Spanish and British, then momentarily evaporates. 

It is not known exactly how many Apalachee venture out on their own and follow the coast west to Mobile, but they do not stay long. The British are expanding their New World west, and stories of the massacre of Indians have been passed from grandmother to grandson. Wanting nothing to do with these barbarians, in 1763 the Apalachee meet with French officials in New Orleans, who grant them land on the Red River. On September 27, the Apalachee of Mobile, a group of perhaps eighty—the only coherent faction of a tribe that once numbered 50,000—ventures north up the Mississippi then west up the Red, settling in an area known as Rapide, because of the rapids. 

On a bluff overlooking the river they build log cabins with cypress-bark siding and mud chimneys, and they begin cultivating tobacco and corn. “The Apalachee appear to be rapidly advancing towards civilization,” writes a frontiersman who visits Rapide in 1806. “They possess horses, cattle and hogs; dress better than Indians generally do, and seem to derive a considerable portion of their support from the cultivation of the earth.”

But with allegiances in America shifting, the Apalachee are on unstable ground. In the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762, Louis XV deeds to Spain all French territory west of the Mississippi River. Then comes the American Revolution, and settlers begin trickling west. In October 1800, the Treaty of San Ildefonso gives Louisiana back to France. Just three years later, the young United States purchases Louisiana from France. The new overlords will be the Americans after all. Soon, a pair of white settlers dupes the Apalachee into signing away their land. Thirty years later, the Apalachee petition Congress, claiming they are owed large amounts of money for questionable sales; the request is turned down. This pretty much ends the tribe’s relationship with the federal government. They slip into the swamps. 

 

In rural Louisiana, the remaining Apalachee live quietly, or at least they try to. Sometime in the early 1900s the Ku Klux Klan learns of their existence and begins an assault on the tribe. “They got to where they were shooting the women because . . . there were more women than men,” one survivor recounted to an ethnologist in 1998. “They shot Marceline, my aunt, they caught her hoeing cotton in the field. They chased Grandpa down with the horses and dogs, hit him in the head with something and busted his brains out.” 

Grandpa was Amos Bennett, Chief Gilmer Bennett’s grandfather. We’re almost to the present, brains busted, brains reeling, but so goes history—once the greatest tribe in Florida, now just a bunch of people with the same last name. During the 1910s, Chief Bennett’s kin fill sacks with earth and carry them into a shallow lake and create mounds and build homes on the mounds and hide there, surrounded by their moat, protected from the raiders. 

After World War II, with the United States looking to expand Louisiana’s Kisatchie National Forest, rangers burn down these homes. Most of the family’s heirlooms are lost. Wary and oft disparaged, Apalachee children are told not to talk about their heritage. Records are intentionally destroyed by tribe members. In church and elsewhere, Apalachee identify themselves as white. Chief Gilmer Bennett fights in the Korean War, works at a lumber mill, works for the Army Corps of Engineers, meets Grandma B at a movie theater. She sells popcorn and cold drinks and “the lousiest hot dogs you ever saw.” He would hang around and flirt with her. There is a framed photo on their living room wall from their wedding in 1956. They are happily shoving cake into each other’s mouths. 

 

I follow Robert through the woods and back to his house, which he shares with his mother, Zina, and his sister and her family. It is cramped and dark. We pass the living room, where his sister and her husband are lounged out in front of the TV, him shirtless and tattooed, a kid on his lap. Robert’s lair is up narrow stairs in back, a cluttered wood-paneled attic, his artist’s loft. There is a laptop on a desk littered with empty RC Cola cans and in the corner a stack of bins sorted according to types of monster—goblinoids, elves, dragons, large magical beasts, ogres, trolls—some 2,000 creatures in total. Robert’s art is plastic ponies, from the popular animated TV show My Little Pony, a more complicated and psychedelic version of the 1980s cartoon. His creations are laid out on a white drafting table, galloping away in golds and pinks and purples. 

“Ponies are really fascinating,” says Robert. “I get a lot of flak, because it’s like, I’m a grown-ass man who likes ponies. What’s funny is I’m actually a really big fan of horror. And then you got ponies on the other side.”

Zina brings up giant glasses of lemonade Kool-Aid with ice cubes and tells us there’s spaghetti in the fridge. I question Robert about his love of horror. He tells me that painted ponies are a distraction, a way to make money on the side. He sells them at conventions across the South; he just returned from one in Houston where he made a few hundred bucks, and he’ll soon be going to New Orleans. But moviemaking is the real quest for Robert; it just requires lots of cash. The plan is to save up money from ponies and eventually make a movie.

“If you could have all the money in the world behind your idea,” I ask Robert, “and make any movie you wanted, what would it be about?”

He has already begun a script. The film is to be called Darkenvold, named for a purgatory-like place. There are seven characters, each an incarnation of one of the seven deadly sins. The protagonist is named Wratch.

Standing in the day’s last rays, the lovebugs finally still, the air warm, but not as warm as earlier, Robert reveals something interesting. It is the pony community that he really feels at home with, he tells me. His family thinks he is strange—they joke about him being gay. But among the people who make art from plastic ponies, Robert has found acceptance. 

 

There are clear signs that a new order is coming, that new tribes are coming, ones that have nothing to do with the landmasses our ancient ancestors grew up on, or what type of stone-tipped spears they used, or even what god our grandfathers prayed to or which nation they spilt their blood for. The new tribes, I imagine, will be based on predilection. They will be more about the future and less about the past, because the past won’t matter as much. The past is dusty, the past is filled with horrors, the past is gone. Perhaps it is our obsession with history that has waylaid us all along, grown men reenacting century-and-a-half-old wars, ancient manuscripts guiding our civic actions, writers digging up old Indian stories. 

A few weeks later, I call Grandma B. Chief Bennett has taken a turn for the worse, and she herself has just come home from the hospital. “We’re not doing too well,” she tells me. 

Soon enough, of the 50,000 Apalachee farmers and warriors, there at last will be none left.


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Justin Nobel is presently documenting lifestyles and landscapes along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts for a project about rising sea levels. His magazine articles on science and culture have been published in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 and Best American Travel Writing 2011 and 2016. A book he cowrote with an exonerated Louisiana death-row inmate is due out this November with University of New Orleans Press.