The Tekesta Miami Circle:
Discovery and the Struggles over its Fate

In August, 1998, excavations exposed an archaeological treasure consisting of a circle of holes chiseled into the limestone bedrock. Also found were pottery shards, stone axe heads, and other artifacts. The site was to be a parking garage for a $126 million high-rise luxury condo complex, Brikell Pointe, located where the Miami River joins Biscayne Bay near downtown Miami.

Although the site is not eye-catching, it turns out to be a major U.S. archaeological discovery. The site had been an apartment complex and before that the homestead and trading post of the Brikell family, early Miami settlers in the 1870s. But now it seems that site held an important building that was part of the Tekesta Indian capitol town, also called Tekesta. This was possibly evidence that North America's first complex society may have arises well before that of the Calusa. The site offers further indication that world archaeology needs to rethink the association of social complexity and agriculture, which has been an ideological icon since the 18th century.

The original development on the site, the Brikell Apartments, were aging, and so were torn down to make way for 600 new luxury condos. When it was realized that beneath were the remains of an historical treasure, an emergency $25,000 donation from the Elizabeth Ordway Dunn Foundation set archaeologists to work from that point until February 1999.

The site developer, Michael Baumann, was not happy about any delay and offered to move the site elsewhere in Miami. He wanted a stonemason to dig a trench around it, make a mold and then excavate it to relocate it elsewhere. Apparently the mayor of Miami, Joe Carollo, offered to have the City pay for the operation, but archaeologists objected that doing so would seriously compromise the site's integrity. A broad popular opposition also objected to the removal plan. It wanted to preserve in situ this memorial of the people who lived in Miami for millenia before falling subject to the domination of white Euro-Americans. Removal would not only be archaeologically damaging, but offensive to North America's Native American population, who have the original moral claim on the land.

In February, 1999, the stonemason hired to desecrate the site, Joshua Billig, had the good sense to quit and soon became a public hero. Miami's lack of any archaeological preservation law meant there seemed no way to block the developer's project. In the face of mounting broad public protest that began to look like it might prove costly, Baumann restricted the archaeological work to a fifty square-foot survey area.

By this time he was aware that only the discovery of burials here would block his plans. Florida law provides that burials may be grounds for halting construction. Despite the finding of four Tekesta teeth, the Mayor refused to admit the possiblity that the site had been a burial ground or a charnel house. Lest further evidence of burials be unearthed, Baumann imposed a deadline on further archaeological work, giving the county archaeologists until only until Februcary 26 to complete their investigation of the now limited area. He also rejected the county's request to let national archaeologists inspect the Circle or the rest of the property.

On 17 February, Miami-Dade County Manager Alex Penelas, after finding Miami Mayor Joe Carollo unsympathetic, boldly asked the County Commission to pursue a lawsuit to take the property from developer Michael Baumann by eminant domain on the ground that it held great public interest. Penelas said, "I simply cannot stand by and let an important piece of this community's history be destroyed."

But Baumann said he would only consider a "quick taking" that gives him immediate "full compensation" as if his project were completed. The 2.2 acre site had cost him $8 million, but he figured it was now worth well over $50 million even though work had not begun. The County's suit to acqire eminent domain, was approved by a the Commission on 18 February, and backed up by a separate suit brought by Indians who were not confident the first would suceed. On February 18, Dade County Circuit Judge Richard Y. Feder signed a temporary injunction that "prohibited construction on the site and protected the Circle itself from any harm."

The Taino tribe of Jatibonicu on 20 February sent its representative, Karlos Rodriguez, to the Miami Circle to thank the people who helped to save the site. "I was sent here to thank the people and to reiterate the importance of the site." Karlos is a member of the Taino Inter-tribal Council, and he pointed out that "The Tequesta Indians are our ancestors." "We would like it to be a sanctuary for people of all walks of life to enjoy. We want to include everybody." He felt that the carvings on the Miami Circle were similar to carvings found all over the Caribbean.

On February 24, Miami-Dade County asked the State of Florida for a $2 million grant from the 1988 Emergency Archaeological Property Act. This is a C.A.R.L. (Conservation and Recreational Lands) program.

While there was broad concern that the cost to the county of a buy-out could be in excess of $50 million, hope was expressed that part of this could be raised through private donations. County staff suggested that it probably could be in the course of several months if everyone pitched in. At the County Commission hearing, county archaeologist Robert Carr testified that he and visiting experts had found artifacts in the circle that are extraordinary in North America, and hopefully this fact will encourage generosity. Furthermore, the site could prove to be an economic boon to Miami. Becky Roper Matkov, Executive Director of Dade Heritage Trust, noted that, "From an economic viewpoint, I think it will be a godsend. It will put Miami on the historical map." The Sun-Sentinel noted, "Tourists and residents alike need a powerful vision to return to downtown Miami. Bayside is not enough. If built from collective efforts rather than from insider deals, Miami's vision that emanates from the circle can be better than a theme park."

Clearly, the future of this national treasure will depend to a great extent upon the popular struggle to preserve it intact and raise some of the necessary buy out funds. Interested contributors can reach the Dade Heritage Trust at 305-358-9572.

The struggle has engaged Indians, not only the Taino, who are ethnically related to the Tekesta, but also the Seminole and even Mayans. Crucial was an important campaign by Miami schoolchildren, the support of archaeologists and historians from around the Country, the broad based enthusiasm of the Miami community at large, and even New Agers and UFOlogists. Unfortunately, the local union have their pension money and hope for jobs tied up the development project, and they have few options unless there is imaginative political leadership in the City willing to reconcile their concerns with the aim of historic preservation.

Baumann has contacted an eminent domain legal expert and elicited the support of a capitalist attorney who obligingly said, "If [the country commissioners] believe the Tequesta Circle site is sacred and historic, so, too, are the rights of the owner." "If they decide to acquire the site, they also have the legal obligation to protect and preserve the right of private ownership." However, putting of profits before people, where the private profit the few somehow becomes a sacred right that can balance against the welbeing of the the majority, is increasingly being challenged at the global level, where IMF poicies have led to incalculable tragedy in less developed areas.

On March 9, the State Cabinet set aside $2 million for the project, and Secretary of State Kathleen Harris said that this meant that the state is committed to preserving the site intact and in place. However the local leaders must meet the State halfway. The Governor and Cabinet agreed that "Miami-Dade County and Native American groups must work together to raise money for the project."

The State Cabinet will return to the issue May 25 after state appraisers have decided on a value for the property. Then, Preservation 2000 funds may be available as a supplement to the purchase price - $15 million with additional monies accessible in the 1999-2000 fiscal year (The Seminole Tribune, Vol. XX, no.37).