Lines drawn over naming of Brevard's barrier island
Wednesday, 18 January 2012

COCOA BEACH — Should Brevard County’s barrier island bear the name of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, who may have first set foot in Florida near Melbourne Beach?


Or, should federal officials name the 45-mile beachside stretch from Port Canaveral to Sebastian Inlet “Ais Island” to honor its ancient Indian inhabitants?


Both choices are now under consideration by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, said Lou Yost, executive secretary.


And the conquistador and the prehistoric tribe are generating opposing reactions from Space Coast beachside communities.


Last week, responding to complaints about Ponce de León’s alleged treatment of the Indians, the Cocoa Beach City Commission unanimously rescinded its September resolution endorsing naming the island after him.


But Melbourne Beach leaders support Ponce de León. In fact, they hope the king and queen of Spain — and the yet-to-be-elected U.S. president — visit their Community Center during next year’s 500th anniversary celebration of the voyager’s possible landing on the Space Coast.


“It’d be unprecedented. We’ve never had a dignitary from another nation — or even our nation — visit Melbourne Beach,” Town Manager Bill Hoskovec said. “It’d be an unprecedented event.”


U.S. Board on Geographic Names decisions typically take eight months or longer, Yost said. This largely ceremonial christening — similar to Orchid and Hutchinson islands to the south — would not affect postal addresses.


Monday, the federal agency received a Ponce de León Island proposal backed by United Third Bridge and the Florida Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Yost said. Both Melbourne groups have spent years planning for the 500th anniversary of his April 2, 1513, landfall.


But back in mid-October, the American Indian Association of Florida submitted a proposal backing Ais Island.


The Winter Park-based AIAF and the United Confederation of Taíno People, which also supports Ais Island, are collecting online petition signatures “vehemently opposing” the Ponce de León idea, citing “his acts of oppression and brutality against indigenous peoples.”


The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has requested a Department of Defense opinion on behalf of Patrick Air Force Base, email records show.


Ponce de León was born in Santervás De Campos, a small town of about 70 residents in northern Spain. In late November, Mayor Santiago Baeza Benavides and the city’s first lady, Maria Nuria Rodriguez, toured the Space Coast for a week in advance of the 500th anniversary.


Melbourne Beach Mayor Tom Davis presented them a key to his town. The Spanish visitors gave Davis a framed photograph of the church where Ponce de León was baptized. This photo now hangs in the Melbourne Beach Town Hall lobby.


Two weeks ago, Hoskovec wrote a letter to the Postmaster General asking to reissue a 1982 stamp featuring Ponce de León. The Florida Department of State has launched a “Viva Florida 500” campaign to plan ceremonial events.


But during last week’s Cocoa Beach City Commission meeting, Cocoa Beach artist Rick Piper delivered a presentation denouncing Ponce de León. He contended that the conquistador plundered the New World for the enrichment of Spain.


“Ponce and those that followed him drove them into extinction as a people by the early 1700s through slaving raids, ‘Indian Reductions,’ innumerable wars, skirmishes and executions, and, of course, the European diseases like smallpox that ravaged their population,” Piper said.


Sam Lopez, a chief organizer of the 2013 Ponce de León quincentennial celebration, told commissioners he was perplexed by Piper’s presentation.


Lopez said violence and cruelty were common during the competition to settle colonial Florida.


Ais Indians were warlike cannibals, he said, and the British burned down St. Augustine; the French slaughtered the Spanish inhabitants of Fort Caroline in Jacksonville; and U.S. forces killed hundreds of fugitive slaves and Indians at Fort Gadsden on the Panhandle.


“The Spanish took part in it. The French took part in it. The British took part in it. And the Americans took part in it — today, Indians are still in reservations,” Lopez said. “This had nothing to do with Juan Ponce de León.”


Mayor Skip Beeler clashed with Isabel Wright — a Ponce de León supporter and Democratic candidate challenging Brevard County Commissioner Trudie Infantini — about speaking out of order while Lopez stood at the public-comment podium.


“One more time. You’re testing me,” Beeler warned.


“It’s a racial thing,” Wright replied.


“No, it’s not a racial thing. Please leave. The (police) officer is going to escort you out,” Beeler said.


With that, Beeler ejected Wright from the meeting.


He has not made a similar ejection since becoming mayor in 2002, said Christina Doerrfeld, deputy city clerk.


In the Beach Woods neighborhood south of Melbourne Beach, sculptor Bob Nolan carved an Ais Indian maiden and Ponce de León side-by- side in a “Tree of Life” in a small park.


This bay oak features carvings depicting Space Coast historical and natural wonders, including a NASA shuttle orbiter, alligators and sea turtles.


“I’ve always liked history. There’s a lot of things that little communities have that are a piece of history. And I think that’s interesting,” Nolan said.


 Author:Rick Neale

Source:  Florida Today



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