A fiery Florida sun melts into the warm, tranquil waters of Boca Ciega Bay. Red brick, aged and worn, line the oak canopied streets of the nearby quaint and charming neighborhood of Jungle Prada, which is steeped in rich history. Shady, serene and secluded sits a tropical sanctuary; palm trees and exotic florals gather together, lush and beautiful. Sacred Lands, located in a historic section of St. Petersburg, Florida, is a site on top of an ancient Tocobaga Indian village and mound.
Sacred Lands is a hidden gem which prides itself in preserving Florida’s past and its raw, natural beauty. Each month Sacred Lands plays host to various educational and recreational events. Native American speakers are often invited to the site for speaking engagements regarding their culture and spirituality. Archaeologists also visit the bayside property in hopes of educating others on what Florida was like back in the 1500 and 1600s. In addition, there are a number of programs offered at Sacred Lands which promote the understanding and appreciation of ancient Florida, including the land and its people.
There were as many as a third of a million Indians populating Florida back when the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500s. St. Petersburg, during this time, was merely a dense and wild land. Jungles covered what are now paved streets and shopping plazas; a once tropical oasis, now an urban one. Indians roamed the land over a thousand years ago. With very little clothing to cover their bronzed skin, these warriors hunted, fished and gathered in order to survive. When the Indians fished clams and oysters, they deposited their empty shells onto an eight foot ridge, along the shore near the Sacred Lands site. Today, many homes stand atop of these ancient shell mounds. In the 1500 and 1600s, the Indians constructed their homes on this very ridge line. In addition, these Native American people gathered the bones of their dead and placed them onto a platform that once stood near the site. These bone bundles were then buried in a circular mound. Eventually the Indians built a large temple mound which was measured at 16 feet tall and 172 feet wide. Chief Tocobaga lived on top of a 20 foot tall temple mound which overlooked Old Tampa Bay, currently known as Safety Harbor. In the 1500s, over twenty mounds stood in the Tampa Bay area, but now only a mere seven remain.
The Tocobagans called Tampa Bay home. These Indians mainly consisted of fishermen. They gathered shellfish mostly, for their diets, and then used the leftover shells for tools, housewares and in their garments. Each Indian village had its own chief. Every morning the village nobles would meet with the chief at the temple for pipe smoking and to take a few sips of what was called by the natives, “the black drink.” The village was also home to commoners and slaves. Another class within the village was called the Berdache. These were hermaphrodite men who sliced off their sexual organs and donned short tribal skirts made of moss. The Berdache wore their hair long and flowing. Their jobs included taking care of the ill, and they would also help take the injured off the fields during war. In addition, the Berdache performed sexual favors on certain warrior men and assisted the village shaman with the preparation of dead bodies.
Tocobagan death rituals were quite unusual. One practice in their tradition was to boil the body, pick off the meat, break the bones at the joints, bundle them in deerskin and then place them on the platform. Burials were done with oyster shells or through some form of cremation. Bones may also have been placed in an urn or flexed, meaning they were bent into a fetal-like position. Effigy sacrifices were also used with burials. This was when artifacts were laid out in the shape of a body, and bones were then scattered on the ground. This practice was done in order to release the spirit of the artifacts to accompany the soul of the dead to wherever it may go in the afterlife. And speaking of souls and the afterlife, some Indians believed we possessed three seperate souls; a shadow, an eye pupil and a pond reflection. When an Indian died, two of the souls departed with the body and then traveled into the body of a lesser being, such as a fish. The pupil soul would remain within the body. This particular soul was what the living Indian would talk to at burial rites when advice was needed. There is still much to learn about the Indian and that is one of the reasons Sacred Lands is so significant as an educator and preservationist.
Florida history is a huge part of who I am, but so is nature and the beauty of the land on which we live. Finding peace and harmony with Mother Nature is a necessity in this day and age. Sacred Lands strongly encourages this partnership between man and earth.
Under a night’s sky, with the haunting glow of a low set moon peeking out shyly from behind the ancient oaks, embers float up to the stars. The tribal rhythm of Native American drumming penetrates the air. It’s almost as if a magical spell has been cast among Sacred Land’s patrons. The atmosphere is calming and happy; every worry and stress within the body has dissappaited. Drum circles are very popular at Sacred Lands, as are mediation and the Native American flute circles. Many of the peace promoting events are done around a sacred fire. All gatherings are free to attend, and are open to all as long as there is respect and understanding. Sweat Lodge ceremonies are also available on site. Monthly, one may attend Sacred Lands’ Peruvian Altar, which is held for personal and planetary healing and is performed in the Pachakuti Mesa tradition. According to Sacred Lands, the Altar is a way to appreciate and experience a unique way of life. During this spiritual gathering, teaching, healing, mediation, and prayer are encouraged for ourselves and for our loved ones.
Sacred Lands is an appreciator of the arts and of music, but not just through drum and flute circles. Concerts, given by various local singers and musicians, are conducted on the grounds regularly.
And with all this love, peace and musical harmony in a most beautiful setting, it is certainly not hard to imagine a wedding ceremony being performed here. Sacred Lands hosts venue to many brides and grooms. No decorations are needed as this site is extraordinary in many of its own natural ways. Doris Anderson, notary and licensed therapist, officiates many of the Sacred Lands’ weddings. With Anderson’s calming ways, brides are sure to push aside all of their wedding day jitters.
Sacred Lands promises a little bit of something for everyone. Personally, I would love to take a tour of the grounds. Offered every Sunday at 4 pm, guides will lead vistors through the lush green gardens, past the exotic flora and into an ancient realm. One can learn about the Spanish explorers who once set forth on Florida soil over a thousand years ago, and of the Tocabaga Indian tribe that inhabitated the lands adjacent to Boca Ciega Bay. Tour patrons also will become educated on subjects such as contemporary indigenious spiritual practices, Florida plant life, wildlife and the environment. You will be able to walk on the very same grounds where a Tocabagan village once stood, along with an ancient and very sacred Indian mound.
The historical site is managed by a non-profit organization, whose mission is to preserve and honor its ancient ways. Sacred Lands is committed to protecting its Indian mound, a truly significant part of Florida’s history. Harold and Frances Anderson first took over the ancient village and mound site back in the 1940s and have used the land for many activities and events over time. Today, people are still finding their way to Sacred Lands and discovering the magic that lies just beyond the tropical gardens. Many claim that the site has a special lure to it. Sacred Lands has been described to be almost magnetic; its energy strong and even healing to some. A spiritual place that is said to relieve one of their mental and emotional woes, promoting well-being, serenity and peace.
When I first found Sacred Lands, it was simply by accident, or so I thought. I was out on a leisurely drive when I decided to turn down a tiny side street leading to Boca Ciega Bay. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a strange little sign that read, “Sacred Lands.” In all my years of living in Pinellas County, I had never seen this place, or had even heard of it. And, after talking to family and friends who have lived in St. Petersburg for many years, I realized I wasn’t alone on my lack of familiarity regarding the site. This mysterious place was drawing me to it. I drove over to the sign, parked my car and got out. The gate was locked. Sacred Lands was closed for the day. All that could be seen from where I stood were gardens and a greenhouse. The air around me felt different; it was full of bustling energy, yet at the same time, oddly tranquil and quiet. A seagull flew overhead, crying out once and then disappearing past the tall, swaying palms. I stood alone, longing to understand what surrounded me. Little did I know, I was immersed in ancient magic. After returning home that day and researching Sacred Lands, I realized that I had stumbled upon something very special. I wanted to learn more and couldn’t wait to return to the grounds.
Sacred Lands isn’t just a place to learn history or absorb harmonious vibrations, it is also a site some consider to be haunted. As mentioned earlier in this passage, upon visiting Sacred Lands, I could feel a multitude of energies in the atmosphere, and perhaps not all of them are benevolent. The infamous gangster, Al Capone, once owned a speakeasy next to the site called The Gangplank, which housed many notable acts including Duke Ellington. Capone ran rum into The Gangplank by constructing a tunnel between the neighboring Boca Ciega Bay and the speakeasy’s basement. It is rumored today that Capone and members of his rumrunning gang still wander the grounds here, even though The Gangplank is long gone. And since there were Indians and Spaniards once ruling this site, you better believe there are spirits dating back to the ancient tribal days walking through the moonlit gardens late into the night. Shadow people and light anomolies have been encountered on ghost tours which are held in this section of the Jungle Prada neighborhood. If you’re feeling brave and wish to meet a spirit of Florida’s past, you can join in on a ghostly candlelit tour every Friday night at 8 pm (please see below for more details).
Some people feel that, regardless of the ghosts, Indian mounds possess magical energies. The artifacts, shells, and sometimes the bones which are left behind by the Native Americans, can bring forth strange feelings within the atmosphere and encourage strong, spiritual presences to form.
There are those that believe that Sacred Lands is a portal of sorts. Unidentifiable creatures have been seen wandering about, while the ghostly residual energy of earlier times still lingers on. There are even some who think that the land in and around the site is cursed due to the mistreatment and eventual demise of the Tocabagan people.
No matter if you believe the stories or not, the site of Sacred Lands leaves behind a colorful history not to be forgotten.
Under the star-scattered heavens, just beyond the warm waters of the bay, a magical sanctuary sits peaceful, undisturbed by our modern day society. Peacocks wander among the heady, sweet-scented flowers, while the leaves of the old cabbage palms shudder softly in the bay breezes. Ghosts or none at all, the aura of Sacred Lands is speacial and unlike any other I have ever felt before. It is an enchanting place; mysterious and captivating in its realm.
So, whether you are searching for inner peace, looking to embrace spirituality, are seeking out the paranormal or just wishing to understand Florida’s rich history, Sacred Lands is ideal for all.
Sacred Lands: Preserving Yesterday and Envisioning Tomorrow
1620 Park Street, St. Petersburg, FL 33710
For volunteer information, please go to www.sacredlandspreservationandeducation.org
Donations are greatly appreciated and will directly benefit Sacred Lands
Ghost Tours of St. Petersburg
For reservations and information regarding the tours, please call 727-894-4678