Crafts of the Calusa - Marco Island Historical Society lecture shares Native American lifeskills

Once, crafts were more than a hobby. For the Native Americans who lived here before European settlers started building condos, crafts, making items for everyday use from natural materials, were a way of life and a necessity for survival.

A capacity crowd in the Rose History Auditorium at the Marco Island Historical Museum got a closer look at the crafts the Calusa Indians and other indigenous people used in a presentation Tuesday evening. Nolberto Gillespie, a member of a Cherokee tribe in Alabama who has spent years learning and replicating archaic native practices, spoke to the group and demonstrated various skills used in their lives.

Gillespie’s presentation, as he noted in his talk, combined ancient and modern technology. Speaking of spear making and weaving fishing nets from natural fibers, he used a PowerPoint slideshow on his Dell laptop, a digital projector, and a cordless microphone, which functioned properly only after being tweaked by Alan Sandlin.

Wearing a blue denim workshirt, jeans and long hair, Gillespie looked the part, as he showed photos and videos of some of the many ways the Calusas used nature’s tools to harvest nature’s bounty. He showed more than pictures, too. The stage next to his speaker’s podium was covered with completed handiwork, “89 percent” of which, said Gillespie, he had made himself.

In an area lacking stones, he said, seashells served many important functions. They were used for tools including hammers and cutting edges, weapons, jewelry, and building materials, as well as providing a major food source. Barbed stingray tails were used as points for spears and arrows. The left-handed or lightning whelk, the horse conch, and queen conch were among the most popular for tools, and most of the high ground on Marco Island and its surroundings is composed of untold millions of oyster shells mounded up over centuries.

And like Native Americans in general, the Calusas were a recycling culture long before that came into its recent popularity.

“They didn’t waste anything. As their tools wore down, they re-ground them and re-used them, often as a different tool entirely,” said Gillespie.

Cordage was another big necessity for native crafts, and Gillespie showed how it was harvested from vines and palm leaves, and twisted to provide strength and durability.

“Getting fiber from natural products was one of the most basic skills, and it’s becoming a lost art,” said Gillespie. “When we talk about fiber, we’re not talking about breakfast cereal” – nothing to do with Special K, he clarified. “The sabal palm and the saw palmetto were prime sources, with the leaves split into strips.” An eight-foot long fishing net, he said, could use over a mile of cord, so there was always a need for more.

Standing behind the stage were two realistic paintings of Calusas done by Gillespie. While he demonstrated he had been at pains to make all the details authentic where possible, going back to archaeological digs and Spanish archives, he also said that he was compelled to use his imagination to fill in the numerous gaps in our knowledge of these vanished people.

Beyond handicrafts, “there is a world we could learn from the Indian approach to life,” said Gillespie. “I guess the biggest thing would be to just slow down, and be in nature.”

Looking over the artifacts after the talk, Judy Carpenter winced when she tried a stingray-tipped spear point on her finger.

“He would be very helpful to have with you on Gilligan’s Island,” she said of Gillespie.

Art was popping up all over Marco Island this weekend. The city kicked off its first-ever “Arts Afire!” festival, a multi-media assemblage of events taking in everything from painting to pottery, photography to flower arranging, and live theater to big bands and the Songs of the Everglades.

Saturday marked the official kickoff of the festival, although the Marco Island Shell Club jumped the gun, with their shell show starting the previous Thursday. The Calusa Garden Club, in collaboration with the Art League, hosted “Art in Bloom” at the Art League’s headquarters on Winterberry Drive. The flower show celebrated the artistic possibilities of flowers and decorative plants, exhibiting them both in their natural state and incorporated into arrangements in a myriad of categories.

In one class, “Art is for the Birds!” exhibitors decorated standardized birdhouses provided by the club, and in another, origami napkin art, they created unique place settings, with dinner plates and folded napkins joining the required plant material.

“This is so natural. I love the herbs in the place setting,” said Anne Moore, looking over the entries. “Everybody has herbs in their garden.”

Some floral artists created arrangements interpreting the paintings or other artwork in the Art League’s gallery. Barbara Lovera showed a bouquet featuring birds of paradise next to Susan Wold’s painting of the same name. Linda Spell took top honors for her take on “Preparare il Pasto” by Inez Hudson.

Outside, plant lovers wandered the sale aisles, where a profusion of flowers and shrubs were available for purchase.

The art of historic preservation also figured in the Arts Afire roster of activities. At noon on Saturday, the Marco Island Historical Society officially opened the Historical Museum on South Heathwood Drive – yes, the same museum where they have been holding events for most of the past year.

Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala joined City Councilor Jerry Gibson, historical society president Alan Sandlin, and others to cut a red ribbon in front of the museum. Fiala held the ceremonial scissors, but Betsy Perdichizzi made the actual cut with an ordinary metal pair.

The event drew a couple of hundred people, and also included a children’s pottery workshop, “Music on the Mound” featuring a trio fronted by JRobert, dioramas of the lost Native American tribes by Tommie Barfield Elementary students, and demonstrations of Native American crafts and folklore by Nolberto Gillespie. Wearing buckskin leggings, earrings, and what looked like a plaid, feathered fez on his head, Gillespie made fire by using a bow to rub two pieces of wood together, and scraped a century plant with a seashell to create a needle and thread the Seminole way.

Inside the museum, exhibits chairman Craig Woodward showed the plans for the permanent exhibits the building will house. The $700,000 worth of historical displays, underwritten by a combination of city, county, tourist development and other funding, should be largely complete by next tourist season, said Woodward.

At the Esplanade, the Left Bank Art Fest put on by the Marco Island Foundation for the Arts also brought art to the people. Art patrons and passersby strolled through the displays of over a dozen artists exhibiting their works for sale, as well as creating new ones on the spot. Pat Perrotti stood in front of CJ’s on the Bay, working on an oil from one of her own photographs, showing a boy dousing himself with a pail of water.

“I was at the beach, and I must have watched him run in and out of the water ten times, and pour that water over his head,” said Perrotti. “I just had to capture that moment.”

Karen Carlson, visiting from Minnesota, declared herself smitten with the watercolors of artist Donna Simons. “Isn’t she amazingly talented,” said Carlson, assembling a selection of prints and notecards to take home with her. Jim Johnson, husband of Arts Foundation president Sandi Johnson, worked the crowd selling raffle tickets.

With dozens of events yet to come, Arts Afire continues through Sunday, March 20. Musical performances include the Marco Strummers at Town Center, Music Makers Big Band and barbershop at the Esplanade, and opera on film at Marco Movies. The Marco Players present their new production, “Baggage,” the Art League hosts an Antique Car Show, and an exhibit of photographs by Clyde Butcher will go on all week at the Historical Museum.

For more information and up-to-date schedules, go to

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