by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
Tabasco and the Soque River Basin of Georgia, USA
One Summer in Mexico – Part 48
The plot of the movie, “Apocalypto,” really did happen
Remember the epic 2006 movie, “Apocalypto?” Director Mel Gibson went to extreme efforts to make the film culturally and historically accurate . . . to the extent of even only hiring Maya actors. Then we all thought that he ruined the movie’s authenticity by having a Spanish ship appear as the slaves are escaping. Well, eight years later, I was shocked to discover that Maya commoners did flee to Florida in the 1500s and 1600s to escape Spanish oppression in the Yucatan. You are in for many more surprises.
While visiting the archaeological museum in Villahermosa, Tabasco during the tenth week of my fellowship in Mexico, I notices that the statuary of the so-called “Olmec” Civilization portrayed at least four different ethnicities. A sizable percentage had full beards, handle bar mustaches and Nordic faces. Another sizable percentage had oversized skulls like the Nazca people and bald heads. The giant stone head, for which the “Olmec” civilization is famous, plus some of the figurines looked like Polynesians from Samoa. A fourth category looked like standard American Indians from Mexico.
After returning to Mexico City, I took the slides of the figurines and statues (including the three above) to Dr. Román Piña Chán, Curator of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia de Mexico. Well, after that meeting, I found out that he had just become the ex-curator. The recently elected authoritarian president of Mexico, Luis Echeveria, wanted somebody else in the prestigious position. Dr. Pina Chan vacated his office only a couple of days after I flew back to Atlanta in September.
In our very first meeting together, Dr. Piña Chán had told me that the architecture and art of the Creek’s ancestral towns in Georgia were very similar to that of the Olmec Civilization. See The Olmec-Creek Connection. If these figurines and statues were our ancestors, I wondered what in the world was going on. The bearded statues that portrayed the Zoque founders of this civilization did not look at all like American Indians!
He gave vague answers to my questions about the four ethnic groups and completely avoided the discussion of the possibility of Europeans arriving in Mexico long before the Spanish. It was obviously a forbidden topic in the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia E Historia . . . and also forbidden by PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional).
Etymology of Sokee/Zoque/Soque/Jokee
Muskogee-speaking creeks called the Sokee, the Svke (Sawke). Itsate-speaking Creeks called them the Svte (Saute) or Sutale.
The Zoque Dictionary in Mexico states that the ethnic name means “Civilized People,” but is not able to provide the origin of the word, since its two components have no meaning in the Zoque language spoken today. That is what I put in the recently published, Native American History of Georgia. However, both in Mexico and in Georgia individual divisions of the tribe pronounced their name either Zjō : kē, Shō : kē or Sű : kē. That is the reason for the variations in spelling their name on the landscapes of both Georgia and Mexico.
Yesterday, after taking very close looks at the statues and figurines that I photographed in Tabasco and southern Veracruz 50 years ago, I began to examine for evidence elsewhere of Bronze Age contacts between northern Europe and Mexico. Sjo is the archaic, pre-Germanic, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Islandic word for a large lake or ocean. The Danes, Frisians and Dutch often use Zea instead. “Ke” or “ge” is an archaic word used in northern Europe, eastern North America indigenous peoples and by the Maori Polynesians for “tribe or people.” It is still used by Gaelic speakers in Ireland and Scotland. Thus, Sokee originally meant, Sea People!
Out of curiosity I typed the word into a Norwegian pronunciation program. So-que is pronounce Shō : kē in Norwegian and Islandic. It is pronounced, Sű : kē in Danish and Frieslandic.
The Florida Mayas
On March 1, 1917 John E. Lazelle authored an extraordinary article in the Palm Beach Post, named “The Seminole Indians of Florida.” It covered most of that edition of the newspaper. Lazelle had been the first white man to live among the Seminoles of South Florida. He was their only school teacher for 10 years. What he quickly discovered is that the “Seminoles” living east and south of Lake Okeechobee did not call themselves Seminoles or Creeks. They called themselves Mayas and would continue to so until the Federal government refused to recognize them by that name in 1955!
What he learned is that although both American whites and the Muskogee Creeks called all the Indians in Florida, Seminoles, that is not what they called themselves. Only the Muskogee-speaking towns called themselves Seminoles at that time. Itsate-speaking (Hitchiti) tribal towns still used their provincial names, when in Georgia. Tribal towns with more recent ties to southern Mexico, clustered together in the most southerly part of the peninsula. Most of them left northern Georgia and western North Carolina during the outbreak of the Creek-Cherokee War in 1716, if not earlier.
The villages that went the furthest south found villages occupied by Mayas from Yucatan. Their languages and cultural traditions were very similar, so they formed an alliance, which they called the Maya. The largest and most advanced group within this alliance were the Sokees from Northeast Georgia. Their village that was located between Lake Okeechobee and Miami, Mikkosoke, functioned as the capital of this alliance. The word means “Leaders of the Civilized People,” but even in the early 1900s, the indigenous peoples had forgotten the meaning of the name. Nevertheless, the capital village’s name was selected as the name of a tribe, which the Federal government agreed to give federal recognition. Miccosukee tribe members today still don’t know what their name means. Even the village of Mikkosoke was forgotten after the Federal government moved the tribe’s members to a reservation south of Lake Okeechobee.
Miccosukee Migration Legend
The Florida Mayas said that the only tribe that ever called itself a name similar to Maya. The Maia (Lake People) originally lived in South Florida, but many of their people moved to northern Yucatan after many of the Maya city states collapsed around 900 AD. Miami means “Principal town of the Lake People.” After the Maia were persecuted by the Spanish, some Maia and Yucateca people moved to Cuba or Florida. There were still some of their kin, living around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. All these Mayas were labeled Seminoles by the US Army during the Seminole Wars.
The leaders of the Florida Maya told Lazell that their ancestors had created the first civilization in Mexico, which preceded the Maya Civilization. To readers of the Palm Beach Post, this statement seemed to be a fairytale. At this time, the so-called Olmec Civilization was just being discovered by Mexican archaeologists. Because of the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, no one outside of Mexico even knew about it. The Miccosukee elders stated that their ancestors had also participated in the Maya Civilization, but did not build large cities.
About two centuries after the collapse of the many large “Maya” cities in southern Yucatan, fierce tribes from the north invaded the homeland of the Sokee and persecuted them. These invaders could have been either the Olmeca or their Nahua cousins, the Mexica. The Sokees heard from their allies, the Itzas, of a wonderful land to the north of great sea. Bands of Sokee headed north along the Great White Path until they reached the mouth of the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River. Along the way, the Sokee migrants picked up bands from other tribes.
It is known that in 1494 the Zoque were invaded and defeated by the Aztecs, during the reign of Ahuizotl, and forced to pay tribute. So, the migration of the Soque may have occurred as late as around 1500 AD, but their persecution may have occurred earlier under the hands of the Tolteca – around 1000-1150 AD or by bands of Chichimeca barbarians, when they invaded the region around 1200 AD. The Sokee earthworks and mounds around Batesville, GA suggest that they were in the region for at least three centuries before being impacted by European colonization.
The Sokee were the last member of the future Creek Confederacy to immigrate from Mexico. They followed the Chattahoochee to its headwaters, where the Itza colonies were located. In present-day Georgia, they found many other tribes that had migrated into the region from Mexico. The Sokee elders that the earlier migrants had intermarried with local tribes and lost some of their cultural sophistication. The Sokee created a great nation in the Soque River Basin, to the east of the Chattahoochee. They established their capital at the headwaters of the Soque River at the foot of a smoking mountain (Chimney Mountain) where their gods now lived.
There they thrived and became powerful until most were forced southward by slave raiders from the north and horrific diseases. Some Sokee remained and established an alliance with the newly arrived Cherokees in order to get protection from the slave raiders. However, most began migrating southward. They eventually moved so far southward that they were out of contact with the other members of the Creek Confederacy. When the Soque’s lands in Georgia were given to the Cherokees in 1785, most remaining Sokee moved southwestward and joined the Creek Confederacy. The Thlobflocco (Creek) Tribal Town in Oklahoma is a direct descendant of the Sokee, who moved to east-central Alabama in 1785.
Many those Sokee, who resembled Polynesians and were at the bottom of “the pecking order” in the Sokee Tribe, elected to remain allied to the Cherokees in 1785 then moved northward to Haywood County, NC, outside the boundary of the Cherokee Tribe. During the Trail of Tears in 1838, many of these Soco somehow avoided deportment to the Indian Territory. They settled down in what is now Graham County, NC and became the core of the Snowbird Cherokees. They are called “Moonfaces” by the main body of Cherokees in the Qualla Reservation.
The Zoque of Tabasco and southern Vera Cruz
In 1518, Capitan Juan de Grijalva commanded a fleet of five Spanish ships, whose directive was to explore the coast of what is now the Gulf Coast of the State of Tabasco. Along the coast, he encountered a maritime people living in the marshes, who were called the Chontales. They are now called Chontal Mayas, because they speak a dialect derived from the languages that the Spanish called Maia. They originally were from Nicaragua however, and spoke an entirely different language. There were many more tribes living in the humid, tropical interior of Tabasco.
The Spanish conquest of the Zoque lands commenced in 1523, under the leadership of Luis Marin. The Zoque were parceled out amongst the settlers, where they endured forced labor and were obliged to pay high tribute. Diseases, exploitation and the miserable conditions under which they lived contributed to a significant decrease in their number. However, the Spanish did not complete the conquest of Tabasco until the late 16th century. By 1600 AD, there were probably only few hundred Zoque surviving in Tabasco and perhaps 2,000+ in Chiapas. Only a total of about 7,500 indigenous people had survived the waves of plagues in Tabasco. The Soque lived in virtual slavery until after the Mexican Revolution, where they were given ejidos (communal lands). Only then did their quality life start gradually improving. Many young Zoque men work in the vast petroleum industry of Tabasco, PEMEX.
How the Sokee got their Spanish name. They called themselves (English phonetics) the Zjōkē or Sűkē. Not have a syllable that approximated a “sjo” sound and also not having a letter K, the Spanish wrote their name as Zoque.
The Sokee in early British colonial history
When Charleston, SC was first settled in 1670, the Sokee and their neighbors, the Highland Apalache (proto-Creeks) were described as the most culturally advanced and politically powerful tribes, north of Mexico. They wore Mesoamerican style woven clothing, flattened their foreheads and wrote their language on sheets of gold foil.
Beginning in the early 1660s, the Sokee began experiencing increasingly frequent attacks by Rickohocken slave raiders, armed with muskets by the Colony of Virginia. In 1669, the Rickohockens established a permanent raiding base where Augusta, GA is located today. Here, they were called the Westo. Catastrophic raids soon caused the Sokee to abandon their villages near the Saulkehatchee (Sokee River), which is now called the Broad River by Georgians. In order to survive, the Sokee established an alliance with the Cusabo Alliance along the South Carolina coast.
Vast numbers of Sokee, Itsate and Apalache Creeks died in the 1696 smallpox pandemic in the southern Appalachians. Most of the survivors headed southward. The Sokee were never mentioned again in the records of the colonial government in Charleston. Their existence was completely forgotten by the time Georgia was founded in 1733. Some later Georgia maps showed small Soque villages, where Batesville and Clarkesville are now located, until 1818. They were seldom visited by white traders and their names were assumed to be “ancient Cherokee words, whose meanings have been forgotten.”
Now you know!