MIAMI — Ten years ago, one of South Florida’s largest developers, Related Group — founded by Jorge Pérez, namesake of Miami’s Pérez Art Museum — acquired a four-acre lot in the city’s Brickell neighborhood, south of Downtown. Related paid $104 million for the land plus a $164 million loan to turn it into one mega luxury-brand hotel. 

When they started tearing down the building and parking lot to prepare for construction, objects attributed to the Tequesta Civilization, one of South Florida’s first tribes, started coming out of the ground. The findings, some dating back 2,000 years, included tools and ornaments made from animal bones and shells, giant turtle remains, artifacts pointing to a thriving trade network, and the remains of the extinct West Indian monk seal. There were also fragments of human remains under the ground. Then, some of the dug-up artifacts showed evidence of being even older, dating back to 8,000 years ago. That’s more ancient than the Pyramids of Giza; older than Rome’s Colosseum — despite claims to the contrary by Pérez, according to some archaeologists.

All of this was happening in one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Miami. Brickell is paved by so many high-rises and condos that the last lot of grass on its main avenue just sold for $6 million.

Although some critics believe the developers and the city have attempted to downplay the findings to avoid media attention, an official “notice of discovery” was formally issued in April 2021. Since then, construction has paused. Following ordinances, developers hired county anthropologists to excavate and assess the site, and they are legally required to consult with tribal preservation officials regarding artifacts and human remains found. In an op-ed for the Miami Herald this month, Pérez defended his rights as a property owner and stated that the artifacts “will be preserved, but not on site,” adding that there would be a future museum exhibition of the findings. 

But some are frustrated with this resolution. Native activists see the site as a sacred burial ground not to be touched. Independent archaeologists fear that once the artifacts are moved, they will remain stored in a warehouse and forever forgotten. And the city of Miami has a history of being lax with developers

View of the West Wing of Brickell 444 site (photo courtesy Archaeological and Historical Conservancy of Florida)

To Betty Osceola, an Everglades Educator and member of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida from the Panther Clan, digging up and moving Native remains is as disrespectful as vandalizing a cemetery. 

“It’s not okay to destroy and desecrate burial grounds and a sacred site,” she told Hyperallergic in an interview. “My stance is that this site needs to be protected and preserved. Build a monument there if needed. Our ancestors need to stay in the ground, and whatever objects they find need to remain in the ground, not be shipped off to museums and universities to be studied. I would like them to give us that respect.”

Robert Rosa, chairman of the Florida Indigenous Alliance (FIA) and member of the central Florida division of the American Indian Movement (AIM), also advocates for the site to remain untouched and protected. “This is about honoring our ancestors,” he said, speaking for the elderly people in his tribe. “The elders see this site as a sacred place where their ancestors are buried. They would like for them to stay there.” 

“But they fear retaliation and are not the ones to make waves,” he continued, adding that all artifacts, pottery, and jewelry are made in prayer, to keep the bad spirits away. So all the findings are considered sacred. 

Indigenous activist Betty Osceola, member of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida from the Panther Clan, leading the prayer walk in Brickell, Miami (photo courtesy Hannah O’Neill)

A Prehistoric Site, Found on Private Property

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990 to address the repatriation of Native remains and objects of cultural patrimony, applies to federal lands or publicly funded institutions, such as museums. But it does not apply to findings on private property. 

Under the pavement, and to the surprise of newcomers unaware of the history of this city, the land bordering the Miami River is one big archaeological zone.  

Due to county and city ordinances placed in the ’80s, developers must consult with archaeologists and the city, state, and Florida tribes if artifacts or human remains are found on private property. 

Robert Carr, director of Florida’s Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, who is consulting with Related, told Hyperallergic that he advocated for these ordinances to protect sites from Miami’s development frenzy. Growing up, his teachers “had no idea who the Tequesta natives were,” he said. Then, one day, Carr found ancient pottery shards that had been dug up after the demolition of homes to make a baseball field. The site had not been protected. Dating back to 1897, there are Miami stories about Native American skulls dug up during the construction of Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel that were given away as souvenirs

Anthropologists working during an assessment of the Brickell 444 site. The finding is a snake burial. (photo courtesy Archaeological and Historical Conservancy of Florida)

The moral responsibility toward preserving the past and respecting Native cultures should also be factored in. But these days, the push to bury and hide history seems to be getting stronger, and to make matters more complicated, there are no laws preventing the developer from moving forward.

 “The problem is that what they are doing is totally legal,” said William Pestle, bioarchaeologist and chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of Miami.

“They are allowed to build a building on top of a known archaeological site as long as they pay a company to remove those artifacts and store them in a warehouse,” Pestle explained. “Legally, that’s all they have to do. As it stands right now, they are not required to preserve any portion of the site. They are not required to do anything with the artifacts.” 

“In fact, if they wanted to, they could turn around and sell the artifacts on eBay,” he continued. “There is no restriction in Florida preventing them from doing that.”

Pestle added that although Pérez and Related have tried to downplay the age of the unearthed objects, he “remain[s] confident that human activity at the site is well older than 2,000 years.”

“While I agree that most of the activity on the site indeed dates to the last 2,000 years (the historically attested Tequesta village), the discovery of over a dozen Archaic artifacts (5,000–7,000 years old) is undisputed, and they are in Bob Carr’s assessment of the site,” he said. “As such, the presence of an earlier phase of activity/occupation cannot be discarded until and unless further systematic study proves it false.”

Pestle submitted a proposal to Related last year advocating for the preservation of the portion that hasn’t been demolished yet and for the developer to build around it to reduce on-site impact. He also would like the already dug-up artifacts to be studied carefully and used in the Florida school curriculum. But Related has not responded to his proposal. 

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment about the site’s sacred significance and its status as a Native burial ground, a spokesperson for Related provided the following statement: “The State Division of Historical Resources has confirmed all the relevant Tribes of Florida have been notified throughout the process, and they have been coordinating efforts with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office.”

Robert Rosa representing the American Indian Movement of Florida and the Florida Indigenous Alliance during the prayer walk in Brickell, Miami (photo courtesy Hannah O’Neill)

Related is indeed consulting with Miccosukee and Seminole preservation officials, but this process brings up some questions. Given Florida’s complex Native American history, different tribes could also have legitimate claims to the found human remains and artifacts. Osceola of the Miccosukee Tribe also pointed to a disconnect. She only found out about this discovery through the media, and when she asked her tribe, the members were also unaware. Although she confirmed with Miccosukee tribal officials that Related had consulted with them, Osceola found that verbal communication started only last month. 

“I understand there are times the State or even the Feds consider an email notification as consultation when it isn’t. It’s semantics,” she said. 

Members of the Seminole Historical Preservation Office, who according to Osceola have been consulting more actively with Related for a longer time, declined to speak to Hyperallergic for this story.

Although Rosa and Osceola are not representing tribal preservation officials, they want their voices to be heard, too. Referring to the developers, Rosa expressed, “I would like for them to listen, to change the laws to protect sacred sites and burials, as they protect their cemeteries. In an ideal world, there would be mutual respect.”

People holding signs during the Brickell walk (photo courtesy Lisette Morales)

Respecting and Preserving What is Sacred

California-based filmmaker and activist Toby McLeod, director of the Sacred Land Film Project, has tracked 120 sacred places worldwide. “Some of these sites are protected. Others are threatened or endangered,” he told Hyperallergic. Speaking about the Brickell site specifically, McLeod argued, “The point is that this is a global story, and there are many definitions of what is considered sacred to Indigenous people.” He used a current example of a similar issue in California, where Indigenous activists and a broader community are fighting to preserve the West Berkeley Shellmound site from development. 

One solution to preserve the site is to get it historically designated.

According to a 2021 report submitted to the city by Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, Inc., which conducts assessments of the site, the Brickell land is “potentially eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.” And this February, unexpectedly, Miami’s historic preservation board instructed officials to begin studying whether they should grant it legal protection, as reported in the Miami Herald. This means that the board could then enforce certain preservation conditions upon the developer. Pestle remains hopeful but is skeptical of the developer following through, fearing that they could appeal the board’s decision to the city commission.

“The reality is that this is a developer that has a lot of political clout, a lot of connections, a lot of money, and we have none of those things,” explained Pestle, who is a member of the independent archaeologist community.

To get the site preserved, South Florida might need to come together again as they did in 1998 with the Miami Circle. Twenty-two years ago, Osceola’s uncle and Robert Rosa’s co-director at the American Indian Movement were involved in a public outcry over this 2,700-year-old sacred site. A combination of national media coverage, school kids writing letters, and neighbors and Native activists leading prayer walks pressured the state of Florida to repurchase the land from the developer for $27 million. 

“Cultivating patience, empathy, allies, and hard work can turn things around. And I think a lot of battles are lost, but the ones won can be very inspiring,” said McLeod, who has spent the last 10 years documenting Indigenous lands under siege.

Rosa, who understands the challenges, is hopeful that more people will also hear his perspective. 

“Sometimes you feel like you are just beating your head against a wall fighting these big corporations,” he said. “It’s frustrating, but we have to honor our ancestors. It’s the elderly people we talk to that say to us, ‘can you do something’ about the ancestors that are buried?’ It’s their strength that drives us.”

Carolina Ana writes about art, grief, motherhood, and her relationship to the internet. You can subscribe to her newsletter for more thoughts on these things, or follow her on Twitter.