by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
One Summer In Mexico ~ Part 57
Did you know that the Miccosukee, who originated in the Soque River Valley of Northeast Georgia, called themselves Mayas until 1951, when the Federal government forced them to change their name in order to be federally recognized? We will tell you the rest of that story further down in this article.
In her career as a Cultural Anthropologist in Mexico, Ana the Tour Guide with Benefits has learned the Maya writing system. In addition, she intensely examines ancient Mayan stone bas reliefs and 16th century codices to re-create the ornate dances of the Maya elite and merchant classes. They had been long forgotten by the surviving Mayas of the Late 20th century. She designs authentic costumes and helps choregraph the dances that are performed in front of both residents of Campeche State and tourists.
Ana was also a consultant for the filming of the movie, Apocalypto. It turns out that the plot of Apocalypto was not bogus after all. Mayas from Campeche and Yucatan DID flee to Cuba and southern Florida in response to Spanish oppression. Ana was right all along! You will learn about that in the Miccosukee article.
Look at the faces of the female dancers above. Videos of the Campeche Maya dances may be accessed at:
Proto-Creek art at Etowah Mounds
Etowah is the Anglicization of the Muskogee Creek word, Etalwa, which is derived from the Georgia (Itsate) Creek and Itza Maya word Etula. Etula means “Principal Town” or “Capital.” The first image is a marble statue that was unearthed by a private collector at Etowah Mounds near Cartersville, GA. Anybody could pay the owners $200 a month to dig there. The statue portrays the Rain Goddess. By the way, both Creek and Maya women always kneeled to sit, whereas men crossed their legs. Now take a look at the female dancers at Playa del Carmen!
The image on the right is of a gorget unearthed by the Smithsonian Institute at Etowah Mounds – Mound C in 1886. It portrays a priestess of the Maya god, Kukulkan, displaying a “mask” painted on her face like the dancers above. Her headdress is identical to Maya priests and priestesses of Kukulkan, portrayed in Maya art. HOWEVER, only at Chichen Itza are these priests portrayed carrying a human head on a short wooden handle.
The Florida-Cuba-Maya Connection
In 1907, teacher John E. Lazelle became the first white man to live among the Seminoles of South Florida. They lived east and south of Lake Okeechobee. They were called Mayas by local folks and known to have a very different cultural traditions than the Seminoles living in the Everglades to the north or the remnant Creek families, living farther north in the Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Georgia. However, little else was known about them, because until recently they were extremely hostile toward whites . . . and for good reason.
Lazelle wrote a report on the “Florida Mayas” in 1917, which was published in the March 1, 1917 Palm Beach, Florida Post newspaper. The article is entitled “The Seminole Indians of Florida.” It is an astounding document that can be accessed online.
South Florida Seminoles still worshiped Mesoamerican deities in the early 1900s, unlike other branches of the Creek Confederacy, who had been monotheistic for many centuries, prior to the arrival of the French and Spanish. Their leaders stated that they were descendants for the first civilization in Mexico, (now called Olmec) which was generally unknown in 1917. Their relatives, who remained in Mexico are now called Zoque or Soque. (pronounced Zjokee) However, they had also been participants in the Maya Civilization. They said that most branches of the Creek Confederacy (except the Uchee, Apalachete and Savano) had also migrated from Mexico, but at earlier times.
The Soque or Sokee were driven out of Tabasco by Nahua invaders – perhaps the Aztecs – then migrated northward along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico until they reached the mouth of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee River. Along the way, they picked up bands of other peoples, who were being persecuted by the Nahuas. The Nahuas had a nasty habit of cutting out the hearts of their sacrificial victims, then eating their flesh in stews.
These bands of indigenous peoples from southern Mexico traveled up the Chattahoochee River until they reached their allies, the Itsate (Itsate Mayas) in the Nacoochee Valley, which was at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee. The town, where Sautee, GA is now located was called Itsate until the land was sold to white families from North Carolina in 1821. Sautee is merely the Itsate word for Soque. It was located about three miles away on the Soque River until 1924, when the Soque Post Office moved to be near the new Nacoochee Academy.
The majority of Sokee (Soque), Itsate, Apalachete and Chote living in Northeast Georgia died in the horrific smallpox epidemic of 1696. The majority of their survivors left the region in 1725, when British officials tried to force them to join the new Cherokee Alliance. They lived in southwest Georgia until the late 1700s then started moving farther and farther south in Florida . . . trying avoid direct contact with white settlers.
Now here is where the Miccosukee/Sokee/Soque Migration Story issues its biggest surprise. There were both indigenous Mayas and descendants of Maya refugees from the Yucatan Peninsula living in the southern tip of Florida, when the Soque and Itsate arrived there! The refugee bands had fled Yucatan in response to oppression from Spanish invaders. So the plot of the movie, Apocalypto, is accurate after all. They spoke languages very similar to those the Itstate Creeks, which the whites called Hitchiti. The residents and the newcomers therefore formed an alliance. They called themselves Mia (Maya) until 1951, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs refused to recognize them under than name. They therefore chose the name of their capital town Miccosukee as the name of the tribe. Miccosukee is the Anglicization of the Sokee word, Mikosokee, which means “King of the Sokee.”
Origin of the word, Maya
I have found that very few North American anthropologists, even those specializing in Mayan archaeology, know the origin of the word Maya. None of the Classic Period Maya city states called themselves Maya. Maya is the Anglicization of a Spanish word that in English phonetics would be spelled Maea. A Spanish Y is pronounced like an English Ē.
The earliest explorers of the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula encountered a province on its northern tip name Mia-am . . . which their Taino guides called Maiam. They were typically sighted in open ocean sailing boats the size of a Viking långbåt or paddling 60-90 feet (18.3-27.4 m) long canoes. Mia means “lake or pond” in the Creek languages and many Maya language. Unlike most branches of the Mayas, the Mia and their their neighbors in Campeche, the Cho’i-te (Chontal Mayas) were expert mariners.
The Spaniards created the ethnic name Maya ( and used it to label all of the indigenous peoples of what is now Yucatan, Campeche, Quintan Roo, Chiapas, eastern Tabasco, Belize and Guatemala. Thus, was born the name Maya, which English speakers wrongly pronounce with an English Y sound.
The irony is that the Mia or Maya had nothing to do with the classic Maya civilizations. They arrived on the southern tip of Yucatan around 1150 AD from their homeland around Lake Okeechobee, Florida after it was repeatedly ransacked by hurricanes and marauding maritime peoples, known as the Tamakoa (Timucua in Spanish and modern English). They were probably Itza Mayas from the Guatemalan Highlands, who migrated to southern Florida as early as 1200-1000 BC and established the Fort Center Mounds site, west of Lake Okeechobee. Some Florida Mayas returned to Yucan and quickly learned the architectural skill of the Yucatec Mayas. Then developed southern Mexico’s most advanced Post-Classic civilization.
Indeed, Taino guides told the Spanish that the Mayakoa (Maya People) lived around Lake Okeechobee and the Mayami (Miami ~ Principal Mia People) lived in the southeastern tip of Florida. Their descendants joined with Creek and Sokee immigrants to form the Florida Seminoles.