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Native Protesters Shine A Light On St. Augustine’s Complicated History

Thousands of tourists flocked to St. Augustine this week to celebrate the founding of America’s oldest city. But one group at the ceremonies was calling for an end to the revelry. Indigenous protesters say the anniversary is a painful memory that’s too often forgotten by the masses.

Against a backdrop of canon fire, Bobby C. Billie’s walking stick clicked against the historic stones of the Castillo de San Marcos as he approached the entrance Sunday morning. He was having a conversation with Ceco Osceola in their native tongue.

The two Native American activists were among about 30 protesters in St. Augustine that morning.

“We’re asking the government to tear down the fort and then invite indigenous people to build and structure what was there before. And then we can celebrate," Billie said. "Otherwise there’s no celebration.” 

They unfurled a flag of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation, a federally unrecognized tribe for which Billie serves as spiritual leader.

Billie said the arrival of St. Augustine founder Pedro Menendez marked the death of his people’s way of life.

Ceco Osceola takes that sentiment a step further.

“I mean, if somebody comes around and says, ‘Hey, why don’t we make a party out of the whole year for Hitler?’ Are they going to jump in the boat? How about Bin Laden?” he said.

Osceola said the city’s celebration is at best tone-deaf, if not a complete whitewash of native history.

But St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver disagrees.

She said the city isn't celebrating Menendez per se, rather the event is meant to celebrate the area’s rich history of being a cultural melting pot.

“This is not telling St. Augustine’s entire story," Shaver said. "This is the 450th, the founding of truly a European settlement. Founding European settlements in this country was never pretty.”

Director of the commemoration, Dana Ste. Claire, said native history is featured prominently at the city’s visitor center.

“If you go to the Tapestry exhibition, the 4,000-square-foot signature exhibition for the 450th at the visitor information center, Native American culture is a huge component of the story,” he said.

Many tourists started their day with a guided tour of that exhibit before venturing into the hot Florida sun.

Among them was Gainesville retiree Clayton Kallman. He said it seems like there were a few pieces missing.

“There’s not very much specificity," he said. "The Timucuans are sort of there. I was interested to see how the Timucuans greeted the Spanish with open arms."

Kallman said it wasn't clear what exactly happened to those natives who initially met Menendez’s fleet.

Flagler College historian and professor of religion Timothy Johnson says the reason for that is twofold; First, it’s uncomfortable for city officials to deal with a checkered past, and there’s an overemphasis on myth and legend.

He said the true history of St. Augustine lies somewhere between the city’s sanitized version and the protesters’ purely negative one.

“There are any number of cases, certainly, where Native Americans were treated horribly, but to say that was the absolute and universal policy within the first Spanish period is really quite contrary to the actual historical facts,” Johnson said.

In the case of Menendez, Johnson said he and the natives lived in relative peace for a time, but it’s also true relations deteriorated after some of his men killed a group of Timucuan chiefs years later.

“To change the narrative takes a long, long time, and it starts by, first of all, rediscovering the sources that we’re starting to do. Retell the stories of these peoples whose voices, up to now, have not been heard,” Johnson said.

He suggests including more native-centric stories at all levels of education.

On Tuesday, six protesters were arrested for disrupting a reenactment of the landing of Pedro Menendez in St. Augustine.

The city has more events and reenactments planned for the remainder of the month, including a visit from Spanish royalty and the commemoration of the first mustered militia troops in the continental U.S. on Wednesday, Sept. 16.