Sacred Lands Preservation and Education 
 

Calusa Indians

(By Mac Perry)

 

Calusa Indian Masks

In 1521 the Calusa killed 80 Spaniards including the Governor of Puerto Rico Ponce de Leon when he tried to build some condos in the Charlotte Harbor area. By 1565, Chief Carlos (I know, it sounds a little Spanish, doesn't it) collected taxes from villages all the way from Key West to Lake Okeechobee (then called Lake Mayami—oooh! so that's where that name came from).

From the Memoirs of Fontaneda (a Shipwrecked Spaniard held captive by the Calusa for 17 years) I read, "These Indians go naked except only some breech-cloths woven of palm . . . [they] are great anglers, great bowmen, and very faithless. I hold it certain they will never be at peace [with Spain], and less will they become Christians." Fontaneda claimed over 50 villages paid taxes to Carlos in exchange for his spells of sorcery, which caused the earth to bring forth fruit.

The Calusa loved to sacrifice humans. They killed hundreds of shipwrecked Spaniards. But when Menendez visited the handsome young Carlos in 1566, he learned that the Calusa really knew how to party, too. Carlos, with a gold medallion glued to his forehead and bead bands strapped to his legs, assembled a thousand men and women in a large tiki hut council house, while several hundred girls aged 10 to 15 sang in harmonious chorus outside the big windows (right next to the 200 riflemen Menendez brought; shifty conquistadors who had their powder wicks burning and ready.) Then hundreds of naked bodies hit the dance floor and dipped and spun to the beat of the music. But when Menendez told Carlos' spiffy twenty-year-old wife (who wore only a string of pearls and a gold necklace across her bare breasts) that she "primed his pump" (Menendez had a way with words when it came to the ladies), Carlos got ruffled and hustled her out of the room. Who cares anyway, he had lots more wives. Carlos then cooled things down by giving Menendez his sister for a bride. Menendez carted her to Cuba, baptized her, and renamed her Doña Antonia.

Next year, Carlos bounced a spear off of Menendez' breastplate and tried to kill him three times until finally the irritated captain in charge of the Spanish outpost captured and killed Carlos. He was only a couple of years older than Billy the Kid when Billy got whacked.

Calusa Indian Sacrifice

Two years later the Spanish outpost was abandoned because Indians who came to catechism classes "took off" every time the corn used to lure them ran out.

The Calusa knew nothing about farming and little about hunting. Their world was fishing. It is estimated that Collier County alone (Naples area) has over eight million cubic yards of shell discarded by Calusa Indians, enough to build three Great Pyramids. They made seawalls from large whelk shells, boat ramps from clam shells, and once used shell hand tools to dig a canal eight feet deep, 35 feet wide, and two miles long across Pine Island north of Ft Myers.

The Calusa were judiciously savage warriors but were delicate artists as well, producing exquisite wooden bowls, masks, figurines, gorgets, and carved bone ornaments. This they did when they were not crushing the skull of a sentinel who fell asleep at his post or chopping off the heads of slain enemy warriors and dancing around them.

 

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