The Miccosukee People seem as indigenous to the Sunshine State as the blooms of the Canna Lily, but they are “transplants” from elsewhere in North America. The location of “elsewhere” varies with the speculations of a pantheon of web sites and books. Linguistic evidence, though, points toward the Maya Highlands of Mesoamerica as their original home.
THE EVERGLADES, FL – (lodeplus.com) – The image of a Miccosukee man in brightly patterned clothing, paddling a dugout canoe through still waters, seems eternally bound to the aura of the Everglades. However, the ancestors of the Miccosukee did not arrive in Florida until the middle or late 1700s. They are a small tribe now, but once were a major division of the Seminoles.
The Seminoles are really Creek Indians, who cut their political ties to their mother towns after moving southward. Most Seminoles during that era spoke the Itsati (Hitchiti) language. Itsati is approximately pronounced Ĭt-jzhă-tē. Their physical appearance, architectural traditions and language were different than the Muskogee-Creeks, who dominated the powerful Creek Confederacy.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, numerous Itsati-speaking provinces dominated what is now Georgia, parts of the Carolinas and southeastern Tennessee. They were major players in the mound-building business. Most of the towns visited by Spanish explorers in the 16th century in this region, such as Hernando de Soto, spoke dialects of Itsati. This is the reason that scholars freqently can not translate the town names mentioned by the Spaniards with contemporary Muskogee-Creek dictionaries.
The Itsati provinces were devastated by waves of plagues that followed in the path of European explorers or riverine trade coming from coastal Spanish missions. During the late 1600s and early 1700s several hundred thousand Itsati were either killed or captured in a series of wars and decades of Native American slave raids. After losing somewhere between 90-95% of their population, they were pushed southward and westward by English colonists and the expanding Cherokee Alliance.
Despite the catastrophic population losses, Itsati was still spoken by more people in Georgia than any other language until after the American Revolution. By then however, the Itsati-Seminoles were concentrated in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Three Creek Wars and three Seminole Wars caused many Muskogee Creeks to join the original Seminoles. All Seminoles were initially pushed southward by white settlers, who wanted the Seminole farmlands. Later, the majority of Seminoles were either deported or killed as a result of these wars, but some bands were successfully able to hide out in the wetlands of southern Florida.
In mid-20th century, the descendants of the surviving Florida Seminoles formed a tribal government. However, the Seminole bands living in the environs of the Everglades felt that they had a cultural tradition distinct from the Muskogee-speaking majority, and also were not adequately represented in the new government. They broke off from the Seminoles and became a state-recognized tribe in 1957. Some Miccosukee families elected to stay in the Seminole Tribe. With the help of Florida congressman, James A. Haley, the Miccosukee became a federally-recognized tribe in 1962. The tribe has thrived from income derived from tourism. It now operates an extremely successful casino and resort complex near Miami, in addition to attractions at its other two reservations. The Miccosukee’s also go by the name now of the Mikasuki.
Meaning of the Miccosukee’s name
References give a variety of explanations for the meaning of the Miccosukee’s tribal name. Many say it is derived from the Spanish words meaning, “dirty monkeys.” Others say that the word means “kings of the Hog Clan.” Some others state that the word can not be translated. There is little doubt that the first part of the word is the Creek title for leader, mikko. The last part of the name could well be an Anglicization of a tribal name, the Sokee.
The Sokee (pronounced Zjhō-kē) once occupied a powerful province with many Mesoamerican traditions in the highlands of northwestern South Carolina, North Carolina and northeastern Georgia. They were also called the Jokasee by English settlers and Joqui by the French. Their ethnic name survives as the Soque River in Georgia, Soco Gap on the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation, Lake Jocasee in South Carolina and Jocasee, Alabama. The name of the Sokee is pronounced the same as the Zoque of southern Mexico, who were probably the progenitors of the Olmec Civilization, and later were peripheral to the Maya civilization.
Origin of the Miccosukee
The Miccosukee People have stated consistently that they are the descendants of the leadership elite of an Itsati-speaking people far to the north. References vary widely in describing their place of origin. Many say that they are “Chiaha Creeks” from southwest Georgia. Others state that they are from northern Georgia. Scholars who think that the Chiaha province was originally in Tennessee say that the Miccosukee’s are from northeastern Tennessee. Those scholars, who subscribe to the belief that Chiaha was on a long island near Bryson City, NC, say that the Miccosukee’s came from the North Carolina Mountains.
There is little doubt that a Miccosukee village was associated with the Chiaha province, when it was located in southwestern Georgia. However, the original town of Chiaha was definitely located the Southern Highlands, when visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in the spring of 1540. It was forced out of the Southern Highlands by the Cherokees in the early 1700s. It is Cherokee tradition that insists that Chiaha was in North Carolina’s section of the Smoky Mountains. The town’s name survives as the Cheoah River and Cheoah Mountain in Graham County, NC.
A Maya Diaspora?
Between 850 AD and 950 AD, there was a massive outpouring of the Itza Maya farmers from the highlands of present day Guatemala, Belize and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Anthropologists currently believe that the illiterate farmers had grown produce to support the big Maya cities to the north. When drought, wars, and disruption of trade both collapsed the market for their produce and limited their ability to feed themselves, they were forced to migrate elsewhere. To date, anthropologists have not agreed on the fate of the Itza farmers. A couple centuries later, the Chontal Maya and Itza Maya gained control of most of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Just as the Maya population collapsed, new towns and expanded agriculture appeared at several locations in the Southeast and Mississippi River Valley of North America. There has never been a consensus among scholars as to what caused the sudden change. An explanation for this cultural revolution would be the arrival of Itza Maya refugees. They were commoners in their homeland, but with superior knowledge of agriculture, could have set themselves up as the new elite. Over the centuries, the Itza Maya language would have blended with the dialects spoken by the indigenous Muskogeans to become dialects of Itsa-ti.
The famous ethnologist, John Swanton, translated Chiaha to mean “highlanders.” because the town’s name had some similarity to the Itsati word for high,tcäihi. However, chiaha, in its Spanish form, chiaja, is a common word in southern Mexico used like North Americans use “riverside.” Chi’a-ha means “beside the river” in Maya. The town of Chiaha was described by de Soto’s chroniclers as being on a long island in a mountain river.
The Maya interpretation of Chiaha’s name is relevant, because the Itsati language contains many pure Maya and Totonac words, especially in regard to architecture, writing, food and politics. The Itsati verb for “to write” is virtually the same as the Itza Maya verb for “to write.” The de Soto Chronicles provide more evidence. The Spaniards mentioned that the Province of Chiaha was the only place they visited in the Southeast that maintained bee hives and ate honey. The honeybee used today in commercial operations is from Eurasia. The Mayas were the only people in the Western Hemisphere to domesticate an indigenous stingless bee that could produce honey. Rural Mayas still raise this indigenous bee, but it is under severe threat because of the arrival of African honey bees in Central America.
Perhaps the most important linguistic evidence that Maya commoners once colonized the Southern Highlands comes from Cherokee history. During the 1700s there were several very old towns in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia named Itsati. Their occupation preceded the arrival of the Cherokees. Some later changed their name to Chota. Cherokees are generally unaware that Itsati is what Hitchiti-speaking Creeks called themselves.
The original Cherokee name for the southern part of the Appalachian Mountains was Itsa-yi, which means Place of the Itza (Mayas.) During the 1820s Christian missionaries arrived in the Cherokee Nation with faulty dictionaries. They translated Itsayi to mean “brass” – a metal of which the Cherokees had no knowledge. The mistranslated word survives today as a town in North Carolina and Georgia’s highest mountain.
The evidence is accumulating that the early history of North America was far more complex than described in standard history textbooks. Theories and speculations can only become facts, when archeologists find multiple types of physical evidence to collaborate the clues provided by words.
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