Native Spirit
September 20th, 2018 by Pam Blair

Photo by David LaBelle

Ben Liggin Sr. showcases Native American culture to honor history of indigenous people

Story by Pam Blair
Photos by David LaBelle

From an early age, culture was important to Ben Liggin Sr.

The son of missionary parents, Ben spent eight formative years along with his two older brothers in Africa—first in Nyasaland, now known as Malawai, when he was about ages 1 to 4, and then in South Africa’s Pretoria and Durban areas from ages 8 to 13.

“I developed a fondness for the African people,” Ben says. “I became fascinated with the culture, and got into the art part of it as a young child.”

Once back in the states, Ben’s interest in indigenous people transferred to local Native American heritage.

A white boy with no Native American lineage—his wife, Carolyn, does trace her roots to the Apache—Ben is nonetheless driven to educate, preserve and restore the culture of those who originally inhabited the St. Andrews Bay area.

“I want to try to reconnect people with their native spirit,” Ben says. “It may not be Native American, but we all have a native spirit. A lot of people really care about the culture.”

A Storefront Showcase
In 2017, Ben opened the Native Spirit Museum & Gallery in historic St. Andrews Bay. He displays authentic artifacts and decor from the Florida Panhandle and surrounding areas, and sells Native American-styled artwork from around the country.

His artistic side is expressed through creation of one-of-a-kind clay figurines that incorporate wood, leather, bone and stone. He calls the series native spirits, which inspired his business name.

“I wanted to open a free museum, but to fund that, I opened a gallery,” Ben says, noting it also is a gift store. “The museum is here for people to learn. I love for kids to come in. This is a hands-on place. I hope to spark an interest in young minds when they see what was found in their backyard.”
Among the items displayed in the museum are Ice Age artifacts such as woolly mammoth and mastodon teeth and sabertooth skulls, along with Native American pieces.

Inspired by the Past
Ben’s interest in history, archaeology, anthropology and Native American culture peaked when he found his first arrowhead in Colorado at around age 24.

“I became hooked,” he says.

The arrowhead is framed and hangs in his gallery, along with other treasures.

“When you pick up your first artifact, you start thinking about where that came from, who made it, how it got there,” Ben says. “When I got home, I wanted to find more, so I started looking around St. Andrews Bay. I found pottery with different designs on broken shards.”

At the time, Ben worked 12-hour days six days a week as manager of Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain store.

“Whenever I had a chance to get away, I would go looking for artifacts,” he says. “It was my release. It was a way to get out of town and get stress off of me. I put myself out where Native Americans lived—where it was nice and quiet, away from people.”

Since then, Ben has drawn inspiration from mentor Tom Detrick, who toured powwows and festivals throughout the Southeast. Tom—who once owned a gallery featuring Native American works—was learning to flint knap and rented a space at Alvin’s.

Tom encouraged Ben to create his own artwork, introducing him to modeling clay in the late 1990s. Ben began selling his pieces at a ceramics gallery he and his wife opened in Seaside. By 1998, Ben was making his native spirit line.

When Tom started diving for artifacts in local rivers, Ben joined him. Laws have changed, and it now is illegal to take artifacts from state waters, Ben notes.

“We were drawn together 30 years ago by an interest in anthropology,” Tom says. “Initially it was from a collector’s perspective, but it developed into an appreciation for its cultural importance.

“The indigenous tribes became extinct, largely killed off by disease. They have no spokesman, and the Native American culture was abused. Ben speaks on their behalf.”

The two travel the powwow circuit, selling artwork that reflects authentic Native American culture, Ben says.

Tom also assists Ben as co-curator at Native Spirit Museum & Gallery.

A Cultural Treasure
The historical significance of the St. Andrews Bay area continues to captivate both men.

They have found relics from the Ice Age and various Native American periods.

“This is one of the areas where life was sustained,” Tom says. “We really are right in the heart of everything.”

The first residents arrived in the area more than 14,000 years ago, Tom says.

Traces of 53 mounds built by early Native Americans who inhabited the area centuries ago have been found along St. Andrews Bay, Choctawhatchee Bay, the Choctawhatchee River and Holmes Creek, Ben says.

Prominent archaeologist C.B. Moore visited the area in 1905 and documented numerous shell mounds.

“The largest of the mounds was on Shell Point,” Ben says. “The mound was 6 acres at the base and reached a height of 30 feet.”

Shell Point is northwest of Hathaway Bridge connecting Panama City and Panama City Beach along U.S. Route 98.

“When a pass through was cut for Shell Island, engineers decided to take advantage of a 40-foot-deep spring-fed pond,” Ben says. “It was an engineer’s dream and an ecologist’s nightmare.

“What attracted these indigenous people to this area was the freshwater springs along the coastline. The only place along the Gulf Coast where you can find freshwater springs this close to the gulf is between Panama City and Pensacola. Most of the ponds on the north side of Front Beach Road are spring-fed.

“Inland game such as deer, turkeys, rabbits and squirrels drank from the pristine springs, providing a constant supply of fresh meat. The salty bay and gulf shores provided shellfish such as clams, conchs, oysters and scallops. Fish abounded.”

The springs were a draw not only for Native Americans, but for the Spaniards who were searching for the fountain of youth.

Evidence of the Spaniards’ presence was found when a construction crew was setting footers for a nearby Holiday Inn in the 1960s. Workers struck a Spanish galleon that had sunk at the entrance to the bay during a hurricane.

With help from personnel at the Naval Support Activity Base in Panama City Beach, two cannons from the ship were retrieved, and work on the motel continued.

During his work in the region, Moore unearthed two cone-shaped adult skulls. He donated them to the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

A third was unearthed about 50 years ago during a local dig. It was reinterred at the end of the project.

Righting a Wrong
In addition to educating the public about the area’s past through his museum and gallery, Ben is committed to trying to correct—to the extent possible—the desecration of culturally significant remnants of the indigenous people.

As recently as the 1970s, Native American pottery shards were plentiful along the water, but no one paid attention to their importance and now it is gone, Tom says.

“We may not be able to replace all of the shell mounds, but we can replace one,” Ben insists. “Replacing the shell mound on Shell Point is one of two goals I have for the near future.”

He says the land on which Shell Point sits was traded to the county as part of an airport deal. Because it is wetlands, it is not commercially viable for construction.

“Being in a tourist community, we are always concerned with what we can do to attract more visitors,” Ben says. “The county can make a project of restoring a forgotten cultural asset and, in so doing, increase tourism. The oyster shells to make the mound could be collected from local restaurants, getting the entire county involved.”

His second goal is to replace the skulls unearthed by Moore more than 100 years ago to the Navy base area where they were found.

“They are probably locked up in a basement drawer at the Peabody Museum,” Ben says. “I don’t want them on exhibit, or to be photographed. I don’t want them in my gallery. They need to be returned to the earth, to their rightful resting place.”