Around his neck, James Allen often wears the tip of a deer antler and rib bones from a cow that are adorned with beads of white glass and black onyx. It's a symbol of his American Indian heritage and part of his life hobby, re-enacting this history. Allen, 59, who dresses as a warrior and answers to Duckfeather, has been part of the living history at the Fort Foster Rendezvous for 15 years. This year, he will orchestrate demonstrations with military, Seminoles and civilians for schoolchildren Thursday and Friday and then for the public Feb. 8-9 at the annual event at Hillsborough River State Park. Tampa Bay Times reporter Elisabeth Parker caught up with Allen to learn what it was like to live in the area as a settler and after the United States bought Florida from Spain.
How did you get hooked on this history?
My father brought me to Fort Foster. It was in the '70s and it was a garrison weekend, with people dressed up for tours in period clothes. I was going to Hillsborough High School at the time. (I love football games and I still go to the Big Red games.) Guys were making coffee over a fire and there were a lot of soldiers. I remember the re-enactors made the history come alive.
What's the story of the Seminoles you represent?
Seminole means runaway. They were in Florida because it was a Spanish territory, a safe haven. They didn't have to deal with white settlers as much here. Native Americans got along well with Spanish, before Spain sold Florida to the United States, and they started building forts and trying to push Native Americans out.
What is your heritage?
My father is a Muscogee; my mother was a Cherokee. I have English blood, too. Lots of English. My mother is probably a half-breed. My father is a little more dilute.
Do you get any of the dividends from the Seminoles' gambling profits?
I was born in Atlanta and my parents are from the Georgia area. I moved to Tampa when I was 6. I would have to gain acceptance, and it's a lengthy process.
What's your philosophy on land ownership?
I don't believe people can own land.
But you do?
Sure, I have to have a place to live. I pay taxes, too, by the way. It's our land. God made the land, then he made the people. So he made the people for the land. Not the land for the people. We didn't want to go. We didn't want to leave. The culture of our people is people of the water. That's why white people called us Creek Indians.
Water is very important to the Muscogee Indian. We bathe every day. We fish, we hunt alligators as well as hunting in the woods for deer. Deer is our money. We trade deer hides for anything that we need. We grow crops — corn, beans, squash, tomatoes. They wanted us to go to Oklahoma. If you've ever been to Oklahoma, you know there's no creeks or rivers to camp by.
What is the historical story behind Fort Foster?
It was a military outpost surrounded by heathens living in the woods. They were families with warriors like myself.
When was this?
In 1835, the militia came and built Fort Alabama here. Later that year, they were suffering from malaria, which they feared was swamp gas so they abandoned the fort. The natives burned it. Then in 1836 and '37, the soldiers came back and rebuilt a smaller fort under the direction of Col. Foster. It was more of an overnight layover, a depot for supples coming from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort King in Ocala.
So the natives weren't happy with their new neighbors?
No. There was only one skirmish documented here. A Seminole hunting party found the fort while out on a hunt and harassed the soldiers for about a week or so. One night they shot at militia around a campfire. The soldiers scurried back into fort. Then the Indians tried to burn the bridge over the Hillsborough River. The soldiers shot at them from inside the fort. The commanding officer was afraid it might be a trap, so they didn't send anyone out. Eventually, the Indians left.
And you re-enact this skirmish every year?
Yes, every year it's different. In fact one battle to the next may be different. The skirmish is after 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. We have burned the bridge. We've allowed some natives to be captured. We've scalped settlers.
Most of my re-enactors are mixed blood like myself. Some are not at all.
If Ancient Hunter comes, he will bring (an ancient spear-throwing device) used by our forefathers. It's a long spear-type arrow.
And kids get to throw tomahawks?
Parents do, too. (He smiles widely.) They can shoot bow and arrows and swim in the river.
Do you get paid to do this?
No, I have a regular job as a mechanic with the post office. I kind of live this, though.
What do you most want people to know about the American Indians?
We're not like in the movies. We're real people. We're no different than you. The reason that we were here and fighting was that we were defending our women and our children and our homes. It would be no different than if someone were trying today to take your children and your home.
Sunday conversation is edited for clarity and brevity.