Honoring Caciquas

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For our native people, this beautiful blue-green planet was not the enemy to be conquered and tamed by human hands. The miracle was beyond human comprehension. The night sky described a relationship between Grandfather Sky and Grandmother Earth. We are all were part of something magnificent in its scope and breadth.

Florida’s people were matrilineal. Women were the very instrument of life. It flowed through them like a river. Like a stream it flowed into the bays and bayous and from there it spilled into the Gulf and the oceans beyond. She nursed her children within that course. She was part of the great hoop of life, the web of life, with everything flowing together. Her spirit was at once magnificent in scope as her being was fully human in her needs and desires. Her breath was the breath of life fanning the embers which helped feed her family. She was the vessel, lovingly made by the Great Mystery and it was essential that she learn to give back to the best of her ability and skill. She was the mother, the wife, the daughter.

She holds a horse conch. Its whorls are like the spirals of life; its opening is like the universe, the universal cradle. Her collar too is decorated with spirals, its neckline spilling into the cross of the four directions and the endless leaf, the perfect growth. The cross of the four directions is divided by the rivers of life, the child, the adolescent, the adult and the future.

Her necklace is made of snake vertebrae terminating into a turtle vertebrae and a pendant. The symbol on the shell pendant is the hand of man and the eye of the Great Mystery motif.

The Spider Grandmother symbol behind her left shoulder brought fire to humankind. She is the weaver; weaving the story that we are all a part of; each a fiber in the fabric of time and space.

Beside the Caciqua is a pottery jar. Made from the earth and strengthened by heat, it is never empty. It holds air, the breath of life. It holds meat from her husband’s hunt; fish from his nets and his leister. Within it is the gift of nourishment and life brought by her husband. It’s the relationship to him with the plants she has provided. The mix which will fill their bodies with the energy they need. Their gift which will bring health and love to their children.

She is all these things and yet she is flesh, bone, and blood.

Caciquas or Honored Women are mentioned in several Spanish documents. Interpreted through Eurocentric eyes over the centuries, the roles of these women have sadly been misunderstood. Unlike the patrimonial system of European monarchies, female leaders were the representatives of the women in their community. A case in point is the misunderstood role of Antonia, a female leader in the Calusa nation in southwestern Florida during Menéndez’ visit in 1566. One of many faux pas he commits during his visit, is Menéndez assumes the woman seated on the dias to be the wife of the Honored Man, a.k.a. Cacique Calos. The 16th century document clearly states there were 500 women seated behind Antonia, as well as, 500 men seated behind Calos.  People in the audience begin to snicker as they realize the mistake. Calos’ real wife had to be brought out to meet Menéndez. Later in the story, he makes another assumption that Antonia is sent to his ship to entice him into her bed, believing her to be some kind of “gift.” If you understand Native American political culture, women were the ambassadors since they are less threatening than men. Frustrated in her attempts to communicate with Menéndez, Antonia eventually died, most likely from a European disease to which she had no immunity.

The Lady of Cofitachiqui greets the DeSoto gang.

When Panifio de Narváez meets the Tocobaga in 1528, he too makes the assumption that the woman who is attacked by his war dogs is the “mother” of Cacique Hirragua. Narváez was a nasty piece of work, infamous for his vicious treatment of the native people who resisted his invasion during the conquest of Cuba in 1519. He was no more lenient with the native people he ran into in Florida.

When Hernando Desoto was no less perplexed by the “Lady of Coftachqui” when he stumbled upon her people during his meandering journey through the Southeastern United States in 1539. This woman was sent to greet the strangers with gifts of pearls but is later kidnapped by DeSoto.

The whole concept of “Indian Princess” and related aristocracy is Eurocentric. Native Americans developed completely different political systems, alien not only to those early Europeans who first encountered them, but also to many of our modern scholars who’s job it is to interpret them. Isn’t it time we start looking at these unique and beautiful cultures through Native American eyes, instead of trying to stuff them in an archaic Eurocentric mold? If we did, we’ just might learn that they had an awful lot to  teach us.

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