Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez performs a smoke purification ceremony
Men in logo caps and camouflage cargo pants. Women in capris and comfy shoes. Politicians. Retirees. Pony-tailed hikers. People negotiating the rough ground in wheelchairs. At least four ethnicities and an 80-year age spread. They all wait patiently for the purifying smoke.
Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez is burning sage, which produces pungent, billowing clouds. Ramirez claims the title Carib Indian Tribal Queen, which she quickly points out isn’t bestowed by ballot, like Miss America. It comes to her through bloodline.
And nobody questions the compact, Trinidad-born Ramirez when she directs this improbable crowd of 200 or so to form a circle around a great tree. They just make a circle. Deep in Palm Beach County’s Riverbend Park in Jupiter, Florida they make a circle on the site of the Loxahatchee Battlefield. The sage smoke will purify the place, and everyone there. Ramirez fights the breeze, using feathers in one hand to encourage the smoke one way or another. One after another, each person takes on a thoughtful expression... trying to gauge the effects of the vapors.
Ramirez stops for moment of silence; but here there’s always the sound of the wind in the palms and the gentle swish of the moss in the trees.
In the first half of the 1800’s, Florida was dotted with Seminole villages and encampments. But the Seminoles weren’t just Native Americans by that time. By then, generations of freed or runaway slaves had settled in peacefully with the Indians, intermarried, farmed and raised successive families. But the American government was uncomfortable with their presence. There was a perceived security threat; blacks and Indians in Florida had befriended the British in the Revolution and War of 1812. And then there were aggrieved slave owners to think about.
So over 40 years in two wars, the US fought the Seminoles. And while there are always multiple motives for any undertaking this large, US Major General Thomas Sidney Jessup summed it up this way: “This you can be assured is a Negro, not an Indian war.”
And this field, between the high oaks and along the banks of a dark and swampy river, is where guerilla-fighting Seminoles ground down the US army in a landmark battle. That was January of 1836. Gen. Jessup was left with two days rations and 400 soldiers, shoeless from the harsh fighting conditions.
So he offered a truce, and appealed to the President to be allowed to make peace. The White House re-issued its “capture-or-kill order,” and Jessup did as he was told. Under the flag of truce, he captured hundreds of Seminoles who had assembled for talks.
They were promptly marched off west along the aptly-named Trail of Tears.
Donald Gibson, on the board of the Loxahatchee Battlefield Preservationists, says attendance at the event has been just about doubling each year. He sees the crowd -- and its mixed demographic -- as a hopeful sign.
“This tells us there is an affinity for history,” he says, “and a reconciliation of the conflict.”
Another Preservationist board member, Guy Bachman, assessing the battlefield out from under a wide-brimmed hat, suggests the land itself is a powerful force.
“We saw a (Florida) panther yesterday,” he says, knowing the effect that will have on the listener. The big cats couldn’t be more endangered or more elusive. By some estimates there are only a few hundred left. Actually seeing one...
But there’s more.
“Years ago, I saw a panther here on a burial mound,” Bachman says. “Maybe he was just here spotting turkeys. Or maybe it was something else.”
Florida Black History Research Project
Aceola portrait courtesy: State Library and Archives of Florida