Greater Miami’s Native American history

Outside of their reservations, today the legacy of Greater Miami’s indigenous peoples primarily lives on in our place names. “Miami” itself comes from the word mayaimi (primarily credited to the Calusa) meaning “big water.” (Dade, by the way, is the surname of Major Francis L. Dade, who fought and was killed in the “second” of the Seminole Wars, which we’ll get to in a bit.)  “Opa-Locka” is a shortened version of the Seminole “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka,” roughly translated as “a big island covered with many trees.” “Hialeah” is generally credited to the Muskogee language as an amalgamation of words translating to “pretty prairie.” And if you ever wondered why there’s an alligator on those fading neighborhood signs, that’s the meaning of the Seminole word “Allapattah.”

Miami was inhabited by Paleo-Indians some 10,000 years ago, but our more recent and better known tribal history begins with the Tequesta, who for the last 3,000 years or so centered their extensive southeastern Florida territory on the banks of the Miami River.

The 1998 discovery of the Miami Circle on the south side of the river’s mouth helped paint a picture of the Tequesta’s significant presence in the area and is regarded as one of the most significant archaeological sites in North America. Also known as the Brickell Point site, the circle is a National Historic Landmark owned by the state, but is today covered up with grass and functioning as a park.

The 2014 development of the Met Miami complex led to the discovery of even more of the Tequesta village — today the site of the downtown Whole Foods, Silverspot Cinema, and Met One condo. An agreement was made with the developer to properly identify and preserve portions of the site, though as of Jan. 2020 the Herald reported that “most of the other two dozen elements stipulated in the agreement have not been started and look nothing like the architectural renderings in the agreement.” Consider that the exposed in-ground circle at the corner of SE 3 Ave and SE 4 Street should be sitting in a two-story glass enclosure. To this day, Brickell and downtown development projects yield additional Tequesta findings.

The Tequesta people were memorialized in bronze on the Brickell Avenue bridge in 1992 by the late Cuban sculptor Manuel Carbonell. Swire Properties Group later commissioned Carbonell to add two more bronze odes to the Tequesta to Brickell Key: El Centinela del Rio, the statue of a Tequesta man blowing into a conch that greets boaters on Biscayne Bay, and The Manatee Fountain, featuring three Tequesta children at play with a manatee and her calf.

The beginning of the end for the Tequesta was marked by their first contact with the Europeans in the 16th century. Centuries of hostility followed, with slavery and disease virtually extinguishing the Tequesta by the mid-18th century. Members of the Creek nation who became known as the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes filled the vacuum left behind (emphasis on “became known as” — “seminole” isn’t even a Seminole word, as it turns out).

Violent conflict between the Seminole and Americans began in the early 1800s as the United States pushed into Florida, then Spanish territory. The warring would stretch into the mid-19th century, thought of by Americans as three separate-but-related military conflicts known as the Seminole Wars, but considered one single Long War by the Seminole Tribe. Ever wonder how or why the tribes of today ended up in the area in and around Everglades and Big Cypress? By the end of the conflict, the few surviving Native Americans who did not submit to forced removal and relocation by the U.S. to the Indian Territory retreated into the wetlands to survive and persist. Most Seminoles established formal relations with the United States as the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 1957, with the Miccosukee following suit in 1962 — most, but not all.