Tribal Tides 1 – “Whats a Calusa?”

As promised paddlers/readers post #1 in the series Tribal Tides, and now on with the post.

Whats a Calusa? Pronounced “kah-LOO-sah”, and sometimes spelled Caloosa; as in Caloosahatchee River (which means “river of the Caloosa”)  The term Calusa refers to a Native American Indian tribe of Southwest, Florida. The Calusa are also famous for their other name the “Shell Indians”. The word Calusa is said to have one of two origins, one being from the tribal village of Calos and the second origin being that calusa meant “Fierce People” in their native language. There are no historical records to prove this second origin. At one time, there were believed to have been up to 50,000 in the Calusa Indian Nation.

The Calusa were not hunters/ farmers like a lot of North American Indians, but instead were expert fisherman, seaman/sailors, and gatherers/ hunters who lived off the Florida Gulfcoast. They were known as a very fierce and war-like tribe, and had political control over many other tribes living in Florida at the time such as the Ais, Jeaga, Jobe, Tequesta, and Matacumbe tribes. Although some think it was a federation of tribes- this is still disputed as the Calusa were thought to have been in absolute power!! They had 1 King Chief with many smaller village Chiefs who had local power. The last Calusa King died in the early 1700’s. The Calusa were thought to have practiced human sacrifice and possibly cannabilism. This is believed to have existed in the more early stages of tribal life in the Calusa tribe. It is also said they were known to have mutilated enemies so they would not be “whole” in the spirit world!! They were also successful in attacking and driving off the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. In their later years the Calusa turned to salvaging riches and gold from shipwrecks all along Florida’s southwest coast and were thought to have been regarded as wealthy, although by this time they were now fighting European diseases as well as the Creek Indians who had come south into Florida.

The Calusa Indians made heavy, long canoes out of cypress wood that were equipped with both paddles and sails that they used to fish, gather, and hunt from. The Calusa ate fish such as mullet , crab, conchs, clams, oysters, and lobsters that they would either gather or fish for using nets, weirs (corral type pin ), or bow and arrow and spears with shell heads. The tribe also hunted turtles, eels, birds, and small game with blow guns with darts dipped in poison from sting ray slime. Only 20% of their diet was believed to have consisted of fruits, nuts, berries, and everybody’s favorite……..roots!! Because of the abundant supply of food available they were able to become detailed wood carvers & elaborate mask makers, as well as build artificial islands, docks, seawalls out of – yep you guessed it – SHELLS!! There have been many items found, made by the Calusa using seashells and sharkteeth – such as tools for survival and living, weapons, utensils, jewelry, and mask & temple ornaments! I wonder if that has any reasoning for why the Calusa were called the SHELL INDIANS (ya think)??

The Calusa built and lived in chickee-type houses. A chickee is 4 posts with a roof.  The roof is made with support beams covered in palm leaves usually, but could have been solid beams. Sometimes with a raised platform/deck floor. It has no walls to allow good ventilation and cooling sea breezes to blow through in hot humid climates. As far as clothing it was pretty basic breech/loin cloth for the males & palm/moss skirts for females- no shirt, no shoes- No Service! Oh wait thats something entirely different!! The Calusa were a tall people and had long hair that they wore “topknot” on their heads occasionally with feathers. The Calusa warriors often painted their faces and bodies before battles & dances!

Unfortunately, the Calusa culture was decimated by European diseases & the Creek Indian tribe who would later become the Seminoles. (Go Miami Canes- sorry had to represent). Some survivors were thought to have been sent to Cuba while others blended and mixed into the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. One thing is for sure the Calusa language and culture is lost.

WHEW!! So now that you know what a Calusa is lets see why we picked this location as our next paddling expedition. Jeff and I have been tossing this paddling location around for about 3 years now- we have not done an extended paddling trip since December of 2009 and wanted to do this sometime this year. I ran into Betsy Clayton who is the Public Relations person for The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail while in Charleston, S.C. at the East Coast Canoe and Kayak Festival this year. She asked me when I was coming down to paddle as I have been getting info from her on the trail. I said some time this year. I spoke with Jeff shortly after and we decided why not September just before the Calusa Blueways Paddling Festival that will be from November 4th through 6th. We are now back in touch with Betsy and working out all the details. The planets are hopefully aligning and there are things in the works behind the scenes- Stay Tuned!!

As for why we are so interested in this area here goes nothing:

Jeff’s reasons:

  • Because ITS There!
  • Because I Love To Paddle!
  • to get out and paddle an area with various paddling environments and different types of water!

Sean’s reasons:

  • the ability to get to paddle through many different eco-environments and wildlife (saltwater crocs)viewing.
  • a much needed break from the “RAT RACE”!!
  • a great way to get in touch with your “inner paddler” so to speak and actually feel the environment of the Calusa, spiritual paddling in the land of the lost Calusa Indians.

The Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail just seems to be a special place where paddlers can follow in the paddle strokes of a once Great Indian Nation. Jeff and I think it will be neat to go paddle a place that is trying to find a balance between the new world of prosperity and growth and still manages to blend the beliefs of a past civilization and natural wild outdoors. Not to mention caters to a sea fairing community and paddlers. I believe we will take much more away than we know and can even begin to imagine. Jeff and I would also like to try some native survival practices such as water desalination and practice fire by friction techniques.


The next post in the Tribal Tides series will be out in a week or so and will cover some of the planning we are doing to get ready and some more details and arrangements that have hopefully been made! I think it will probably be the finalized route we are taking over the 2 week time period.

— Jeff  and  Sean

References : Shell People by Kimberly Ripley

Native Languages of the Americas by Laura Reddish & Orrin Lewis

USF Education Web Site “Exploring Florida Website”

Wikipedia- Calusa Indians


  1. Thanks for the history lesson Sean, it’s always cool to understand what the area was like and why it was important. Good stuff.

    See ya soon boys!

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