color photograph of an archaeologist leaning over a wooden work station spraying a hose on site
MIAMI, FL - MAY 10: Archaeologist Oscar P. Pereira, with the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, sifts through items on a sifting board while excavating a site where the conservancy found evidence that at one time, more than 1,000 years ago a Tequesta Indian village stood where the mouth of the Miami River was located on May 10, 2013, in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board (HEPB) has officially designated a portion of the sacred Tequesta site in the Brickell neighborhood as a historic archaeological site. The designation won’t stop Related Group, which owns the site, from demolishing the current building at the 444 Brickell location and building a luxury condominium in its place due to pre-approval from the city in 2015. 

Related Group did not object to the HEPB historic designation but did note that any conditions applied could not cause economic hardship to the company. Indigenous activists and their allies expressed their frustrations with being left out of the decision-making process at the Nov. 7 meeting. Related Group has six months after its archaeological dig is complete to present its plan for preservation and have yet to incorporate feedback from Indigenous groups. This could take months or years.

“This plan that was put forth—it’s not enough,” said Betty Osceola, a Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida member and advocate during the Nov. 7 HEPB meeting. “We keep asking you to leave our ancestors in the ground, leave our artifacts in the ground.”

According to a City of Miami spokesperson and the Related Group’s attorney, the company was already granted City of Miami approval in 2015, long before the historic designation process began. According to the Related Group’s attorney, the Related Group’s vested, pre-approved build plans will only be reviewed administratively and not by the HEPB. If Related Group changes the building plan, then it will need to undergo HEPB approval.

“There is no point in the creation of a panel and a declaration of archaeological, as well as historic importance if any democratic decision reached is impotent and non-binding,” an archaeologist who worked on the site and requested to remain anonymous said in a written statement. “The current disregard for the panel’s decision is an insult to historians, the now extinct Tequesta people, and the local Native American representatives working to protect Tequesta legacy and dignity.”

Miccosukee activist Osceola and Taino activist Robert Rosa were among the Indigenous activists present at the Nov. 7 meeting to share their discontent with the handling of the latest archaeological findings in Brickell. Osceola and Rosa hoped the designation would mean there would be actual preservation of their community’s artifacts and no building development, calling it a “desecration.” Earlier in the day, Osceola and her nephew, environmental preservationist Garrett Stuart, held a prayer at the nearby historic Miami Circle, where Tequesta artifacts were once found and which has since turned into a dog park for luxury condominium residents. 

“We have been left out of this conversation and having these experts educated from a building about Indigenous people when they’re not even Indigenous people,” Osceola asked during the Nov. 7 meeting. “It’s not their people. How are you going to understand that context? We’re asking for these sites to be undeveloped and protected and respected as our ancestors lay there.”

Miami-Dade County Chief Archaeologist Jeff Ransom attempted to revise the conditions for the designation of the 444 Brickell site because he said they restrict board oversight of future excavation finds. The board was able to revise one condition, with Related Group’s attorney’s agreement, to be able to review the handling of future archaeological discoveries at the site in an advisory capacity. The Related Group attorney rejected another condition proposed by Ransom that would have given the board the ability to approve certificates to dig, which Related needs to begin excavation for archaeology and construction. Instead, those certificates will be issued administratively without public review.

The Related Group attorney says they hope to “connect the dots” and physically link the Miami Circle and the 444 Brickell site by possibly extending the planned riverwalk behind the Related projects under the Brickell Avenue Bridge to the Miami Circle. 

The decision comes weeks after OSHA completed its review of a health and safety complaint filed against Related Group and PaleoWest during archaeological digging in 2021. The findings, which Prism obtained in a Freedom of Information Act records request, say that the inspection of the workplace at 77 SE 5th St. on Dec. 15, 2022, found employees were exposed to hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, tungsten, petroleum, sulfur, and benzene while engaged in archaeological activities. However, OSHA declined to issue a citation for the hazard and instead recommended that the company take steps voluntarily to eliminate or reduce employee exposure to the hazard described above. These include a series of job hazard analyses (JHA), safety trainings, and providing employees with personal protective equipment, in addition to conducting frequent and regular inspections to ensure that subcontractors are complying with the requirements of OSHA’s standards.

Records indicate that during an investigator’s visit to the worksite, employees were removed and restricted from working in contaminated “areas of concern.” A Hazard Alert Letter was sent to the employer.

The archaeologist who requested to remain anonymous wrote in a statement that the OSHA recommendations “recognized that crimes have been committed at the site under its standards and regulations, yet refused to take action, financially punish the developers, or force proper measures to be taken. Instead of protecting Miami archaeologists and construction workers, many of whom are young people in their 20s, OSHA chose to recommend, rather than order, that Related Group change its process, while ignoring its own responsibility to protect the health and safety of those it claims to represent. 

“Without power to protect workers, OSHA is a useless organization that is also responsible for the harm enacted by the Perez family and their accomplices.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...