1. Life & Culture

What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day and who lived in Tampa Bay?

Columbus Day resurfaces painful history for many Natives Americans.

On the second Monday of October, the U.S. usually celebrates Columbus Day. But there is a movement toward an alternative: Indigenous Peoples' Day.

The push to replace the Italian explorer’s holiday came as a result of the Red Power Movement that arose during the civil rights era in the 1960s and 70s, says UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Malinda Maynor Lowery. The purpose is to bring visibility to the Native Americans who have lived in the country for thousands of years and their struggles.

Columbus Day supporters say it’s to celebrate the contribution of Italian-American immigrants. But it resurfaces painful history for Natives Americans, as the arrival of Europeans brought conquests, rape, wars and deadly diseases.

“That’s not something we want to celebrate. That’s not something anyone wants to celebrate,” Shannon Speed, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center told NPR in 2019.

South Dakota was the first to officially recognize Native American Day in 1989.

In Florida, only Columbus Day is officially recognized as a holiday. But in recent years, there’s been a push nationwide as some municipalities realize they have a role to play in human rights, Lowery says.

Here’s a brief history of Indigenous people from the Tampa Bay region.


David Anderson shows off Tocobaga pottery shards from his parents property during a tour of the Anderson/ Narvaez Mound at Jungle Prada, St. Petersburg, Monday, October 14, 2019. The area, just west of Park Street North, was inhabited by the Tocobaga people from 1000AD to 1600AD and the mound was part of their "plaza" area where they traded, met, and performed ceremonies according to Erik Anderson. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

The Tocobagans' village capital used to be in modern-day Safety Harbor.

They built mounds along the Gulf Coast for sacred and burial purposes. Local superstition says it protects the Tampa Bay area from hurricanes.

Related: Did local mounds save Tampa Bay from Irma's worst? Some say yes.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the village was wiped out. A mound 20 feet high and 150 feet across remains in Safety Harbor’s Philippe Park and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark. A local historian is pushing for the park to be renamed for the tribe, rather than Odet Philippe, a Black man who bought, sold and owned Black people.


The name behind Tampa and the bay region is believed to come from a Calusa tribe term, meaning “Sticks of fire,” possibly describing the area’s lightning bolts.

But the actual word was “Tanpa.” The word was Hispanized, historian Gary Mormino told the Times in 2019.

It was first mentioned in Escalante Fontaneda’s late 16th century memoir, La Memoria, detailing his captivity. No evidence shows he went as far north as the Tampa area and there’s no known translation. It’s just speculation.

Most of the Calusans, meaning “The Fierce Ones,” were believed to be wiped out by diseases after the arrival of the Europeans. Researchers found evidence in 2004 some tribe members may have fled to Cuba, according to the Associated Press.


A view of a creek behind Pemberton Creek Drive in Seffner where a great battle happened between the Seminole tribe and a militia in 1836 on Monday, May 11, 2020. In 1836, 1,000 men battled when the Seminole Tribe clashed with U.S. militias during the Seminole Wars. It is said to be the largest battle in Hillsborough County history but its exact locale has long been unknown. Jeff Hough, a surveyor for the city of Tampa and a hobby historian, believes he found the spot. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

“You can really stretch back the Seminole presence to the last glaciation 10,000 years ago,” said Dr. Paul Backhouse, senior director of heritage and environment resources for the Seminole Tribe.

When Europeans arrived in Florida, they categorized the locals based on their limited knowledge of who was here. Some descendants of Tocobagans and Calusans are also descendants of Seminoles, Backhouse explains. The tribe names as we know them come from the Europeans, not the natives themselves.

Thousands of Seminoles died from conquest and disease when the Spanish arrived. Even more suffered during the three Seminole Wars against the U.S.

“During the 19th century, the Seminoles battled for their own survival. They don’t know where one war started and one ended,” Backhouse said, adding that thousands were held in Tampa’s Fort Brooke to be deported to Oklahoma and many didn’t survive. After the war, over 200 Seminoles hid in the Everglades.

Today, the Seminoles remain in two groups in Florida: The Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukee Tribe. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma are descendants from the natives forced out of Florida.

The tribe owns Hard Rock International and are pioneers in tribal gaming.