Florida Governor's Council 'What Are We Doing Here?'
By Colin Kenny
MICCOSUKEE RESORT - To the first-time observer, it is hard to figure out the actual purpose of the Florida Governor's Council on Indian Affairs (FGCIA). But don't feel bad. It seems that on this Columbus Day 2000 holiday here, even the FGCIA Board of Directors were trying to figure out that very thing.
"Why do we keep on hanging on to the governor's coattails when he doesn't want us?" said FGCIA Co-Chairman and Seminole Tribal Chairman James E. Billie.
"We have to have the Council to get funded," answered Treasurer Robert Travis.
"It seems like it should be another department . . ." said the Chairman. Chairman Billie's sentiments resonated through each attendee of this meeting as he asked the timeless question that like a nagging wife has driven some men crazy: "What are we doing here?"
The incident at Newnan's Lake provided a "case in point" as Billie referred to ancient Indian canoes inadvertently destroyed by a state-permitted deadhead logger on a lake that the Seminoles once called Pith-la-choc-co (meaning "Place of Long Boats").
"Government had no regard for what happened in the past," the colorful Chairman declared, "if it was George Washington's penis, they'd make a big effort, but if it's Indians - no effort."
Although FGCIA meetings are supposed to be held twice a year, this one was the first since April 1999. At least two board members, Seminole Tribal members Jack Smith Jr. and Max Osceola Jr., were not expected to show - neither one has attended an FGCIA meeting in three years, according to Seminole Tribal Liaison Steven Bowers.
The meeting was called to order at 10:10 a.m. by FGCIA Co-Chairman of the Board and Miccosukee Tribal Chairman Billy Cypress. Since Seminole Chairman Billie was running late, Chairman Cypress suggested that the Board begin with old business. Executive Director Joe Quetone then proceeded with the 1998-99 audit report and the 1999-2000 financial report as well as the 2000-2001 proposed budget. Treasurer Robert Travis then made a motion to submit a resolution to the Governor to require the Council to be reassigned to the Governor's office. The motion was passed among the board members.
Then came the staff reports. Quetone explained how local, State and Federal government applies to various Indian issues, such as Native American archeological finds, verifying membership to federally recognized tribes and so on. He brought up Kidcare (no-premium health insurance program available for Indian children). Bob Kellam reported on the encouraging success of the Employment Training Program and the Mel Blount Home for Boys in Vidalia, Ga., where there are currently six Seminole Indians enrolled. (Incidentally, former Pittsburgh Steeler and NFL Hall of Famer Mel Blount went to school with Treasurer Travis).
When Chairman James Billie arrived - an hour late - he was just in time to see Robert Travis reviewing the minutes for the previous FGCIA meeting. Joel Harris moved to have the minutes accepted, Colley Billie seconded the motion and it was passed unanimously. The board members then accepted, seconded and approved the financial reports, the proposed budget and the FGCIA, Inc. contracts etc.
The FGCIA "was not instituted by law . . . [but] by the governor himself," according to Chairman Billie. Indeed it was on April 10, 1974, that Gov. Reuben Askew signed an Executive Order calling for a private, non-profit corporation to be called The Florida Governor's Council on Indian Affairs to advise the governor "on matters affecting the rights and interests of the Indian people of Florida, with representing the interests of the Indian people of Florida before various state agencies, and with assisting the state in carrying out its responsibilities to the Indian people of Florida." It was further charged that the FGCIA "shall provide or help to provide technical assistance for the educational, economic, social and cultural advancement of the Indian people of Florida."
In those days, as Seminole Tribal Liaison Steven Bowers pointed out at the meeting, the Tribal Liaison could apply for a direct grant from the governor's office for services for the elderly and emergency medical care and then get a direct grant from Tallahassee to the Tribe. But times change. Tribes change. And governors and their administrations change. Bowers remembered that right after Hurricane Andrew, the Tribe couldn't get a grant for emergency assistance. "We had to provide our own services," Bowers said. "We're not getting anything - some cases we don't want anything."
A very nice man, a lobbyist for Bell South named Frank Meiners (husband of board member Marlene Meiners) stood up from the audience and offered what seemed like inside information on what the State government thinks the purpose of the FGCIA is. "What they perceive," said the gentleman, "is the Council is the information source for what's going on with the Tribes."
There were other gripes. Miccosukee Chairman Billy Cypress had "a bad taste about the State Department."
Board member, member of the Republican Executive Committee and part-Cherokee Joel Harris declared that his own 26 year-old daughter can't get a good paying job in Marion County. Where does he get assistance for her? he asks.
Board Secretary Melissa McRae tells Joel about a Vocational Rehab program "for people that have Indian heritage - not even provable Indian heritage."
From his office in Tallahassee, Quetone prefers not to call the FGCIA a lobbying group but rather an "advocate" for Indian interests and concerns. He also says that the FGCIA "should never be a conduit for the Tribe to go through to the State."
Here are some things the FGCIA has accomplished. According to the information packet handed out at the FGCIA meeting, the Miccosukee Shell Plaza at Exit 14 on Alligator Alley, is the result of the FGCIA obtaining a guarantee from the State Department of Transportation that an interchange of I-75 be located on the Miccosukee Reservation. The FGCIA "assisted in the development of Gov. Graham's policy regarding requests from groups that they be recognized as 'Indian Tribes' by the Executive Office of the Governor. The FGCIA also "developed and implemented the Florida Indian Youth Program, a program designed to increase high school graduation and higher education rates for school-age Native American Youth." Quetone adds that the FGCIA was instrumental in getting the first payphone out in the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. And the list goes on.
Of course that's all well and good. But for James E. Billie, there are still questions.
"Is the program outdated?" asks Chairman Billie.
"Unfortunately, there still is a need for advocacy," answers Travis.
"Are there groups for Hispanics, Whites, Blacks . . .?"
Chairman Billie called for a "redefining of the purpose of FGCIA." Chairman Cypress called to "redefine our roles on how we can help Indians."
Perhaps it's the governor in "Governor's Council" that irks Chairman Billie so. "We have a meeting and it's not like the governor is on the phone - 'What did they say?'" said Billie. "I don't want that kind of control in my life. If the governor wants to know what's going on, he can call my office."
Chairman Billie called for a new resolution so "I would feel that when we leave this building something's gonna happen." Travis thought that was a good idea and said that he would write one up.
Steven Bowers said that "redirection is good timing," and Chairman Billie called for the next FGCIA meeting to be in Gainesville.
Meeting was adjourned at 2:58 p.m.