Tribal Leaders Face Millenium
"We imagined this. We saw every one of you all in our dreams, in our visions."
- Laura Mae Osceola
By Peter B. Gallagher
HOLLYWOOD - For the tenth time since a band of determined Florida Indians defied all odds and organized a sovereign government 42 years ago, the Seminole Tribe of Florida installed a brand new Council and Board of leaders, June 7.
All are winners in last month's Tribal-wide elections, all are men except for the two non-voting Immokalee leaders Elaine Aquilar and Dolores Jumper. All are veteran politicians but one - young bullriding Brighton representative Alexander Johns, winner of his first term in office. Perched above vases of multi-colored carnations in a rare joint session of both government arms, the Tribal officers prepared to face the millennium head on.
From the pledge of allegiance chanted by the youngest Seminoles - students at the Hollywood Head Start program - to words of wisdom from a triumvirate of wisdom keepers - elders Laura Mae Osceola, Betty Mae Jumper and Jimmy O'Toole Osceola - the colorful two-hour installation ceremony combined history, culture and modern times for the 2,700 Seminoles, cultural descendents of Florida's indigenous peoples.
At the helm of the government battleship, where he has stood for nearly half of the organized Tribe's existence, is Chairman James E. Billie. Among world leaders in the Western Hemisphere, only Fidel Castro has been in the top job longer. Entering his sixth consecutive term as Chairman of the Tribal Council and Vice President of the Board Of Directors, Billie made it clear that his administration would continue to pursue the expansion of Tribal opportunity he has always advocated . . . now establishing bases of operation and economic networks far beyond United States shores.
"Money doesn't care where it's at," he told a packed auditorium in announcing his newest appointment - former tribal President Joe Dan Osceola as Tribal Ambassador. "If it's on the moon, we'll go there."
Master of Ceremonies Moses Jumper Jr. began the historic program by introducing Rev. Dan Osceola for the opening prayer, followed by the Head Starters with the Pledge of Allegiance and several Seminole gospel songs sung by the elders. Mary Bowers, wheelchair-bound but still active in her Tribal interests, spoke for many when she told the Council: "Praise the Lord, I love all of you."
The leaders all climbed down to the auditorium floor, where Acting Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent Joe Frank then did his constitutional duty by swearing them all into office - the Chairman and President Mitchell Cypress to four year terms and the Council and Board members to two-year terms.
Retiring Brighton Board Rep. Roger Smith addressed the audience one last time, speaking of his administration's accomplishments and throwing his support to his young successor, Alex Johns: "I hope he does a good job. It was rough when I first got in. I didn't really know what I was getting into, but as time went on I kinda grew into it. I kind of wished my brother was still here (late President Fred Smith) to tell us which way to go."
Mitchell Cypress, the Big Cypress cattleman who begins his second term as Vice Chairman and President, thanked the crowd for its support and acknowledged his mother, sister, daughter, granddaughters and friends from Oklahoma sitting in the front row.
Elton "Carl" Baxley, the veteran Hollywood Board rep, went beyond the normal thanking of supporters by extending "an open arm to those who did not vote for me. I'd like to move forward with everyone's support and everyone's cooperation." His millennium goal? "To double our budget in the next two years," said the newly shaven, sunglassed leader.
Dressed in a tiger-striped Indian shirt, Big Cypress Board member Manuel "Mondo" Tiger stood to "thank the Tribal members who helped me when I was down, when I was up and when I was all kinds of ways." The energetic Tiger, beginning his second term, spoke about the many jobs he has had in his lifetime, "but this is the best bunch of people I have ever worked for in my life."
Nervous, but standing tall, Alexander Johns made his first official speech as an elected Seminole Tribal official, admitting: "I get on 2,000-pound bulls every week, but that doesn't make me near as nervous as I am standing here." Johns, a national champion cowboy from Brighton reflected on his life with the tribe: "I am a product of the Seminole Tribe, all the way from Head Start and now I'm up here with these guys!"
Shy David Cypress, Big Cypress Councilman who has won the past six elections out in the swamp was short and to the point: "I appreciate the vote of confidence you all gave me by voting me back into office."
Brighton political legend Jack Smith Jr., recovering from recent illness, also a six-time winner, simply stated: "I want to thank the people of the community for their support."
Max Osceola, Jr. the perennial Hollywood Councilman who has been in office longer than any tribal official in history except for Chairman Billie, spoke honor towards the elders, remembering the halcyon days when he watched, as a young boy, the elders meeting in Constitutional convention beneath the old "Council Oak" near Stirling and 441. "I knew they were doing something important there," said Osceola, who also acknowledged his family. "I want to thank the elders for starting our Tribe and making it strong. I also want to thank my mother and late father for teaching me that people come first."
Elaine Aguilar and Dolores Jumper, the Immokalee representatives were introduced to the crowd. Elaine spoke of the need for togetherness - "love within and love without" - and Dolores, beginning her first stint as a Tribal officer, thanked the crowd in a brief statement.
Chairman Billie called for a roll-call of the clans, encouraging the Wind Clan to "get to work" due to the extreme low numbers in that particular clan group. As is his custom, the Chairman spiced his remarks with strong calls to culture: "It is the nucleus of spirit that keeps us all together. If you lose it (culture) we will lose our spirit."
He encouraged tribal members to attend both their religious Christian events and traditional Tribal events and to seek a balance among both worlds. He praised leaders who attended the installation wearing their Seminole Tribal designs - "Wearing these clothes is our identity." - and encouraged the use of the Seminole languages (Miccosukee and Creek) - "Language gives us the true identity of who we are." He called for all young mothers to begin speaking the Seminole language to their children "while, theoretically, the child is still at your breast. Talk that language to your child, even if it is a cussword. Of course we don't have cusswords in our language, anyway."
Chairman Billie described the Seminole government as "a good government, a solid government. We are a very powerful government. You were never poor. We always had garfish and frogs to eat and land to live on. Everyone has a home.
This is one of the 'spoilest' tribes in the United States," he joked, to an applause from the audience. "And we're gonna keep it that way."
He praised the Friends of The Seminoles, the Broward County social club that gave significant aid to the Seminoles prior to the Tribal government formation in 1957. The people that helped us, some of their children need help. We seek them out and will help them. If you find someone who needs help, let us know.
"I think we went further than they (Friends of the Seminoles) thought we would," said the Chairman. "We went right to the jugular and got casinos. I guess they may have thought we were going to just sell shoes."
He introduced Calixto Garcia-Velez, the Tribe's "advisor for foreign affairs in South America" and Ambassador Joe Dan Osceola, who will be travelling to Austria soon to seek business opportunities with the Indian Village Europe project.
The Chairman also recommended that tribal members stop using the special free Seminole Indian license tags provided by the Florida Division of Highway Safety: "People might try to throw a bomb at you. You make enough money to afford a $34 tag."
Former Tribal leader and government founder Laura Mae Osceola - who described herself as "mother of most all of them (current leaders)" - asked the officers to "teach the new one," referring to the young Alex Johns. She expressed wonderment at all the progress of the tribe: "We imagined this. We saw every one of you all in our dreams, in our visions. We knew that someday we would have money and people asking us for help."
She recalled that the first tribal Chairman, Billy Osceola, promised her "one day we'll be rich. We're all gonna live in nice houses and all our children will go to school and we will be proud of the Seminole Tribe. It makes me sad that some are not here to see all of this."
"The non-Indian always wants you to stay under guard. They want to stomp on you," Laura Mae warned. "You must study and go to school. Education is our number one priority.
She went on to put the leaders in their places with cute stories about each, including a tale about mucous bubbles and a runny nose that had President Cypress blushing. She even included herself in the "roasting" by quoting Tribal tailor Jimmy O'Toole Osceola: "He said 'When you was a little girl you talk all the time and you still talking all the time now.' Well I'm gonna still talk until I'm six feet under the ground."
Director of Communications Betty Mae Jumper, whose early education and knowledge of the various languages was instrumental in the early organization of the Seminole Tribe, pledged her support to the Council and thanked them for all of their hard work.
She was followed by O'Toole Osceola, a member of the original Constitutional Committee, who gave a lengthy soliquoy on the place of religion within the Tribe. He described the traditional medicine practices of the Seminoles as "very difficult. If you want to learn it, it is not spread out before you. You have to decide to use that and to help other Seminoles. You can't start and then drop out. It is a serious step forward to learn that. You must go to one who knows and ask. He does not come to you to teach you. They keep a lid on it."
He asked both leaders and Tribal members to look at themselves, and "think about your lives and where you are going and how you are living." He warned against living between both worlds and "drifting. These people are lost. I would like to see the people of the Seminole Tribe taking life more seriously and figure out which way they are going to live."
A surprise guest ended the program. Miccosukee tribe of Florida Indians Chairman Billy Cypress was invited to sit with Tribal leaders by Chairman Billie. He offered his comments, thanking the Seminoles for their help and friendship towards their Miccosukee brothers and sisters: "This is a special day, not only among individual Seminoles, but also as a group. It is a great moment to witness the new leadership begin and that the people have faith in these leaders to guide you into the next century, the millennium."
Chairman Cypress, busy with the grand opening of the new Miccosukee gaming and hotel complex June 14th, ended his remarks by wishing "huge prosperity to the tribe and to every individual member of the Seminole Tribe. Thank you for all the help you have given us. Thank you from the community of the Miccosukee Tribe."
The meeting adjourned with a long procession of well wishers hand-shaking with the Tribal officers, standing in a line before the stage. Then all enjoyed a buffet dinner, complete with congratulatory cakes emblazoned with officers' pictures, beneath a tent in the parking lot.