A cold wind blowing off Biscayne Bay catches smoke billowing from Catharine Hummingbird Ramirez’s bowl of burning sage and carries it east past an overgrown, circular depression in the ground marking the site of the famous Miami Circle.
Leading the same Native American ceremony she holds every Tuesday on the edge of the approximately 2,000-year-old landmark, Ramirez dabs some oil on the palms of the men and women surrounding her and blesses them. Then, with the sage lit, she offers a prayer for her companions — and for the historic circle itself.
“We really need to do something to save this site,” she says.
Ramirez, a local shaman of sorts, is among a growing group fed up with the state’s stewardship of the Miami Circle park. The historic 2.2-acre site discovered 17 years ago at the mouth of the Miami River was purchased with $27 million in taxpayer dollars in order to preserve the Tequesta village that lies beneath. The site — and in particular the 38-foot diameter circle, believed to be the foundation of a round building used by a Tequesta chief — is managed by Florida’s Division of Historical Resources and ranks among Miami’s most significant and treasured archeological finds.
But the state of the park belies its significance. Much of the lawn is torn apart and needs re-sodding. Garbage cans are often overflowing. And the once-manicured ground above the circle, buried in order to protect the 24 cut limestone basins that mark the Miami Circle ring, looks as if it is beginning to sink into the earth. Holes pock the site, as if someone or something has been digging.
The park — no longer locally managed after HistoryMiami pulled out — is also a popular spot for dogs, including a brown and white beagle that walked Tuesday into the center of the circle and pooped just minutes before Ramirez began her ceremony.
This is a sacred site. This is a great piece of American history here. Miami is the only place where that’s not respected Catharine Hummingbird Ramirez
“This is a sacred site. This is a great piece of American history here,” Ramirez says. “Miami is the only place where that’s not respected.”
After months of complaints, the state is under increasing pressure to invest more time, money and effort into the park. In March, the Florida Inland Navigation District, a special taxing district that contributed $500,000 toward the park’s creation in the late 2000s, urged the state to address garbage, burned-out lights and “a general lack of maintenance.” When that didn’t yield results, FIND sent another letter in December, threatening to claw back its grant as a measure of last resort.
Since then, the Miami River Commission and the Miami City Commission have voted to urge the state to improve conditions at the site. Both noted that the state is contractually obligated to maintain the park under its grant agreement with FIND.
“This is strange, bizarre. It's a dereliction of duty,” said Miami River Commission Chairman Horacio Stuart Aguirre. “The state has not only a moral duty, but a contractual duty to take care of that property.”
Florida officials are responding to the pressure by hosting meetings and offering solutions. Last week, Tim Parsons, new interim director of the Division of Historical Resources, toured the Miami Circle park with the head of the Miami River Commission. The deputy secretary of the Department of State, which oversees the historic division, will be in South Florida this week and has requested a meeting or conference with FIND officials.
The Department is committed to correcting this situation Florida Department of State spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice
On Wednesday, a department spokeswoman said more meetings are planned to talk about improving the park and potentially redesigning some aspects, including landscaping and reconsidering the historic focus of the site, which currently has little in the way of monuments or historic messaging. The circle, for instance, is surrounded by a limestone walkway but isn’t protected by any fencing.
“The Department is committed to correcting this situation and to having this important National Historic Landmark site positively contribute and connect to the river and the local community,” said spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice.
Beatrice didn’t say when any of these answers would take place, or who would be invited. But T. Spencer Crowley, the FIND commissioner from Miami-Dade most closely involved, said he’s hopeful the Department of State will finally address the problem.
Ramirez hopes so too.
“This site is so profound. You come here and you feel renewed because there’s so much positive energy here,” she said. “This is the birth place of Miami.”