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500 Years Ago Ponce de Leon Arrived In Florida. But Is It Something To Commemorate?

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2013 is the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon in what would become the Sunshine State. But, some of the descendants of those who were already in Florida when he arrived, don’t think that event is worthy of much celebration.

Cities around Florida, from St. Augustine, to Miami, to even the state capital are holding events marking Viva Florida, the 500th anniversary of European discovery. But, drive 30 miles outside Tallahassee and down a dirt road, and you’ll find the home of Roy Stanley and Susan Anderson, self-described cultural activists and Native Americans from the Creek and Cherokee tribes. Anderson can’t imagine why anyone would consider the state’s Viva Florida event a celebration.

“It’s difficult to understand why they want to celebrate this in the way they do. It’s like celebrating Andrew Jackson. Why do you want to celebrate this European invasion with this death and destruction and not paint it as that picture?” Stanley said.

Stanley and Anderson are no strangers to protesting what they see as continued oppression of native peoples. They’ve also opposed things like the Springtime Tallahassee Parade, for its use of Andrew Jackson, and Florida State University’s Seminole mascot for more than 30 years. Stanley said the only reason the mascot still exists is that it’s profitable.

“They say it’s alright because the Seminole Tribe Inc. says it’s okay for them to have this mascot, see. But, what the Seminoles are doing is prostituting their culture. You know, they’re doing that for financial gains we’ll say,” Stanley argued.

And the Seminole’s tribal leadership has also endorsed the state’s anniversary observance. Chris Bolfing is a visiting doctoral student from the University of Arkansas. He’s been studying under Stanley and Anderson and one of his first encounters with Viva Florida was in the state’s official welcome center near Pensacola.

“Here’s this big cardboard cutout of Ponce De Leon and it says Florida’s first tourist and that is where I kind of threw up in mouth a little. And it’s like okay, I’m not a big fan of tourists in general anyway, but I don’t know of any tourists that go in and take things from the places that they’re touring by gun[point],” Bolfing said.

Bolfing, who’s also of Cherokee descent, thinks the observance ignores native history before Leon’s first steps in the New World. But, Rachel Porter, a Department of State Coordinator, argued that although the event is called a 500th anniversary, it’s meant to acknowledge all of Florida’s history, before and after Leon. And she wouldn’t call it a celebration either.

“We don’t use that term because this is not a celebration for everyone. This is a commemorative time where we can reflect upon the history and use it as an opportunity to promote Florida, our history, our culture and make it attractive and also known,” Porter said.

Porter maintains that the Department of State understands that the figure of Ponce de Leon can be polarizing and controversial. That’s why she said the state made sure to hold extensive public meetings, where every group was encouraged to join the conversation and voice their concerns.

“From 2011 forward there was an open invitation provided to- I mean, across the board. It was really any association, any museum, [and] any group that wanted to be involved. We had a meeting in Mission San Luis,” Porter pointed out.

There are many reasons why some Native Americans are upset about the state’s commemoration. But, the use of Ponce de Leon as a figure head is particularly contentious. Protests have erupted at events featuring the polarizing conquistador, such as the reenactment of his first landing in St. Augustine this last April. But, Porter wants people to know that although the Department of State kicked off the initiative, it’s up to local municipalities to choose how they’ll commemorate the occasion.

“The Department of State is not organizing these events. We are not paying for these events. We are not telling people what these events should look like or how they can- how they should run their business. This is not our job. Everyone has a different angle on what they promote in Florida,” Porter said.

The facts behind Juan Ponce de Leon’s travels are just as muddled as the opinions of him. A recent New York Times Op-ed by T.D. Allman posits that he was neither a heroic explorer nor a genocidal maniac- the facts seem to lie somewhere in between. Leon traveled to Florida on two different occasions and both trips were seen as miserable failures. Historians say some native tribes were even able to communicate with him using broken Spanish, which punches a few holes in the idea that he was the first European to set foot in the Sunshine State.  But, Susan Anderson, Indian activist and Roy Stanley’s wife, said regardless of what side you stand on, Viva Florida presents an educational opportunity.

“If we address the points of bigotry, racism, genocide- the negativity of the continued marginalization of indigenous people, any of that on its merit, on point. Reasonable people begin to understand,” Anderson clarified.

Florida’s commemoration of its 500th anniversary will continue through the end of the year. But, many will find that searching for its true history is a lot like searching for a fountain of truth.