MIAMI — Yesterday, April 4, the City of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board held a meeting to consider moving forward with the designation process of an ancestral site found during the construction of a luxury hotel in Brickell. All seats were filled at City Hall, so neighbors also crowded in front of the outside television, under the Miami heat, to watch the livestream.
In a meeting that lasted more than five hours until nighttime, the board heard from Related Group, the developer behind the contentious project, as well as local residents, Native American activists, teachers, scholars, kids and youth, grandparents, and archaeologists. Residents expressed their concerns about the future of the site, which dates back to the Tequesta Civilization, Florida’s first people. Even though the CEO of Related — Jorge Pérez, namesake of Miami’s Pérez Art Museum — has promised to respect the findings on private property and follow all ordinances, questions lingered: Will he keep his promise? How significant are the objects and remains that were discovered? Does Miami even need another luxury high-rise? And will Native activists who consider this site to be a sacred burial ground be heard?
The site consists of two lots; one of them, located at 77 SE 5th Street, has already been dug up following ordinances. Last night’s meeting concluded with a vote to withdraw the advancement of a designation proposal for the lot as long as developers bring a concrete action plan regarding what will happen to the findings for the next meeting. In an 8–0 vote, board members did approve moving forward with a proposal for the possible designation of the 444 Brickell Avenue lot, which has yet to be excavated, as a protected archaeological landmark.
University of Miami (UM) professor William Pestle, one of the independent archaeologists who attended the meeting, told Hyperallergic that he was pleased with the decision regarding the second lot. “Perhaps, with more time, archaeologists and Indigenous communities working together can make sure that the vast majority of that site is not disturbed,” he said.
Pestle presented a proposal for designation along with Traci Ardren of UM; Sara Ayers-Rigsby and Malachi Fenn of the Florida Public Archaeology Network; and the city’s Preservation Planner Adrian Espinosa and Preservation Officer Anna Pernas. They explained the significance of the site and included ideas for creative mitigation using examples such as Syntagma Square, Athens’s first subway and the largest archaeological excavation in the city’s history, where archaeologists worked alongside engineers to allow portions of the site to remain “in situ.”
“For the other parcel, I was very disappointed that the board moved away from the prescribed procedure of designation and went with this vague promise of an ‘action plan,’” Pestle continued. “Unless there is legal enforceability for the grand plans that Pérez talked about, I am afraid all those promises will amount to nothing in the long run.”
The next steps include a preliminary evaluation and, finally, a vote to designate the site as a historical landmark. For activists and independent archaeologists, this is a step in the right direction to protect Miami’s history and their ancestors’ legacy. If the site is designated, it can be listed in the National Register of Historic Places and would get more protection under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA).
But Robert Rosa, who is representing the elderly people of the American Indian Movement, was frustrated with how the meeting was run. “I’ve been to many of these meetings,” Rosa told Hyperallergic. “Usually, the public comment goes after the presentations. Still, in this case, it went before, preventing Native American activists and the community from responding back to what was said and clearing any misinformation.” He didn’t feel the vote was a win.
“Again, they silenced our voices,” Rosa lamented.
For the first two hours of the meeting, all residents who wanted to speak gave their public comments. Some waited outside to come in, as the room was so full.
Munir Ingram, a local resident, expressed his support for the historic designation of the site. “We have to understand the history of Miami before the developers came. The Native Indigenous people, the Tequesta and the Seminoles, have been fighting the Spanish, the British, and the Americans for their right to live free on their lands,” Ingram said. “Now there is evidence that Indigenous people developed settlements along the Miami River. They built civilizations before you came around with your gunpowder and steel. Do not desecrate this site.”
There were also people speaking against the historical designation proposal and defending the developer’s position. “The benefits to the citizens are not only additional housing but the jobs this development will create and economic growth,” said Daniel Guerra, a Miami resident and realtor. “I am sure that this board can find a way to work with the developer to preserve artifacts without impeding the progress of our city.”
A presentation shared by the Related argued the group is taking all necessary steps to work with archaeologists and tribes to respect the findings and follow ordinances. To the developer, a move to designate the site would slow down construction, when they are ostensibly following all ordinances and have spent millions of dollars on archaeological digging. Related added in its presentation that both Seminole and Miccosukee tribes had been consulted in the process. But Betty Osceola, a member of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida from the Panther Clan, confirmed during the meeting that Related had consulted no tribal officer from the Miccosukee Tribe and that the consultation process had been mischaracterized.
One of the members of the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, Denise Galvez Turros, also questioned that process. When Turros had asked Related if she could see letters from tribal officials approving the move of the human remains, she was told that the issue was “very private,” as it concerns a burial ground.
Tribal officials from the Seminole Tribe who are consulting with Related did not attend the meeting, and when Hyperallergic contacted them for an interview last month, they declined to provide comment
Discussions about how old the site is have also met disagreements. Related’s consulting archaeologist, Robert Carr, argued during his assessment that findings are not “older than the pyramids” and date back to 500 BCE, around 2,500 years ago, though he did stress that if Native people say this is a sacred site, then that needs to be respected. William Pestle disagrees with Carr on the age of the findings and says they date back to the Archaic Period, but further studying, along with a concrete plan and funding to do this, is necessary.
Native American activists still do not feel included in the conversation. As board members, archaeologists, and developers insist on museums as the “best” places to display these findings, Native American people continue to explain why this is problematic.
“If you have questions about us, we are alive today. You can ask us,” said Betty Osceola. “You don’t need to go digging in our graves and studying what we ate and how we lived. Just ask us, and we can tell you.”
Sheridan Murphy, state executive director of the American Indian Movement of Florida, expressed a similar frustration about the future resting place of these findings.
“I ask everyone on this board if you would like what they found that was lovingly put in the ground to be called an artifact,” Murphy said. “Those human remains are going to end up in a box. How many Native people are sitting in a box collecting dust right now? The time has come. Give respect, or we will take it.”