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Tribe stays connected to latest Miami archaeological dig

Miccosukee tribal member Betty Osceola, center, gathered with other activists near the site March 19 to bring attention to the excavation at the 444 Brickell site. (Photo via Facebook).

An ongoing archaeological dig in the Brickell area of Miami – at a site known as 444 Brickell – has remained on the radar of Native American activists and the staff of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and the Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) at the Seminole Tribe.

The excavation in the city’s downtown corridor has been in process for more than a year in order to make way for a three tower residential high-rise development on 4-acres by developer Related Group. A slew of artifacts, including human remains, have been unearthed and date from thousands of years ago when the Seminole Tribe’s ancestors lived along the mouth of the Miami River and throughout the area.

“The artifacts that are coming out are significant and important to the history and archeological record of Florida,” Paul Backhouse, HERO senior director, said. “It’s more important to the Seminole Tribe because it punctuates its place. It underscores the history of the tribe. It shows such density of occupation. That’s the real story here. Miami was a city before it was Miami.”

Activists Robert Rosa of the American Indian Movement of Florida, members of the Florida Indigenous Alliance, and Miccosukee tribal member Betty Osceola want the city of Miami to halt activity at the site and preserve it in a similar way to the adjacent Miami Circle – a 2.2-acre archaeological site that also contained artifacts and human remains. It was discovered after apartments were demolished in 1998 to make way for a residential high-rise. The site was eventually protected from development and is now a waterfront park and National Historic Landmark.

While it’s possible that 444 Brickell could also be preserved in some way, there are many bureaucratic, legal and jurisdictional issues that would have to be resolved first. Miami’s historical preservation program recently asked the city to investigate granting the site legal protection.

‘Significant, important’

Meanwhile, representatives of the Related Group said in a statement that its intention is to “meticulously excavate the site and document any findings,” as well as comply with any requirements, such as when human remains are discovered. Under Florida law, the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes must be notified and consulted when ancestral human remains are found in order to supervise their relocation, if necessary.

“The tribe doesn’t have the authority to say ‘you can’t excavate or you can’t build here,’” Tina Osceola, THPO director, said. “These are multimillion dollar developments – there are very little rights that the tribe or anyone has. We don’t get to dictate many aspects.”

Osceola, who spends much of her time on repatriation issues, said the tribe has stayed abreast of the excavation and has visited the site.

“THPO has been involved since the beginning. It’s a long and drawn out process,” she said. “All we can do is to make sure the ancestors at that location are treated as the law requires. Sometimes it gets very frustrating when you see an important site like that excavated.”

Osceola and Backhouse said state officials have been “very cooperative” with the tribe thus far.

Osceola said she also understands why Native activists are pushing for complete preservation of the site.

“Any grassroots movement from the community has value – it tells those in government where the moral and ethical barometer is,” she said. “The public feels this place is important and we agree with them 100% – as a tribal member, that place is significant and very important.”

Osceola added that academic institutions have been “fighting over” who gets to study what is excavated at the site.

“The real question is not whether that site should be excavated, but who gets to excavate and who gets to study it? Because that means they can own that story and it becomes that history,” she said.

“Who is writing the past?” Backhouse added. “Academics are losing the ability to control the narrative of the past, a colonial narrative up to this point. That’s what’s playing on this as well. They’re being lured by what’s shiny and new.”

Phase three of excavation is underway at the site. Miami’s historic and environmental preservation board is scheduled to discuss the matter at a public meeting April 4. Representatives of the Related Group are expected to make a presentation at the meeting.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at