Veterans Honored at Annual Celebration

By Susan Etxebarria

BIG CYPRESS — The 19th Annual Veteran’s Day Celebration held Nov. 9 was an extraordinary event attended by hundreds of local veterans, Tribal citizens, honored and special guests. Several prominent guest speakers also attended the festivities to give thanks to all veterans.

“This ceremony came from feelings that are real, from the emotions and from the heart and from the memory,” said Joseph P. McCain, visiting guest speaker and brother of Senator John McCain. “It is unlike a lot of events I usually attend in Washington, DC that are pre-packaged, pre-planned and have an agenda, usually fundraising. Everything here happened in the moment.”

The momentous day began in the early morning hours for the event’s organizers, and the many volunteers. The Veteran’s Day committee handled numerous details while Seminole Police Department parked cars. By 10 a.m. the elaborately decorated hall was and guests were ready for two hours of speeches, performances, songs and tributes that concluded with a luncheon catered by Renegade Barbeque.

Seminole veterans and the many visiting vets as well were honored in speeches by Seminole Tribal officials and visiting dignitaries.

Remembering the valor of Seminole warriors and the personal sacrifice they made touched everyone who came to show their gratitude for their deeds, actions, courage. The highest honor that can be obtained within Native American societies is that of a warrior, and veterans are modern day warriors.

As with previous years, the popular and witty Montanan Dale Oldhorn emceed. Oldham, an Apsaalooke of the Crow Agency, was kind but humorously cracking jokes at every opportunity. He especially enjoyed telling stories about some of the Seminole leaders he went to college with at Haskell Indian University.

Oldham had many things to say about the history of Seminole warriors. He wanted people to know how heroic they were when they resisted and fought the enemy that desired their lands. He talked about how then President Andrew Jackson tried to make all Seminoles leave Florida when he under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

“They fought back, they were brave men and women,” he said. “The Seminoles made a place here in Florida where all could live free, and today they are rising to new levels of success and honor throughout Indian Country.”

Besides Oldham, there were many strong voices heard throughout the ceremony. Another such voice belonged to Seminole poet Moses “Big Shot” Jumper Jr. This prolific poet writes a new poem for this occasion each year. He said he wrote this year’s poem “What Veteran’s Day Means to Me” to honor his father Moses Jumper Sr. and Howard Tiger, his uncle. These two were the first Seminole men to enlist in World War II.

After Jumper read the poem emcee Oldham said: “That was a very moving tribute by Moses. When we hear a tribute by Moses it is still as powerful as the first time we heard it.”

In another touching moment, the kindergarteners of Ahfachkee School spoke proudly and with clarity as they recited the “Pledge of Allegiance” in the Miccosukee language. Following this, Jana, a Lumbee and Tuscarora singer/songwriter and winner of five NAMMY awards, sang the “National Anthem.”

The prestigious Native American Color Guard of the Vietnam Veterans Intertribal Association (VEITA) gave their salute to the veteran’s during the grand entry. This color guard, dressed in traditional clothing, travel throughout the country and internationally as well. They post colors at pow wows, military and political events. They also posted colors at the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian museum in Washington, DC.

“Once again we have enjoyed the outstanding hospitality of the Seminole people,” said the VIETA Color Guard Commander Steve Miller, as he presented beautiful Pendleton blankets to Chairman Mitchell Cypress and Tribal Color Guard Coordinator Stephen Bowers.

Chairman Mitchell Cypress spoke shortly after this tribute from Miller.

“Welcome home, veterans,” he said. “This is your place and this is your home. We are all family no matter where you are from.”

Cypress told the audience how the Veteran’s Day celebration got its start 19 years ago when he, Roy Nash Osceola and Jacob Osceola decided to have a simple barbecue to honor the Seminole veterans. Cypress, a veteran himself, said Roy Nash passed on before the barbecue but several vets showed up. After the first one, each year’s celebration just got bigger and better.

“Here we are 19 years later, celebrating in grand style,” he said.

The 16 page program book handed out at the door as the guests entered the hall proclaimed on the cover “Our Veterans Live Within All Of Us… Honoring All That Served.” On the inside cover are letters from veteran’s Chairman Cypress and Big Cypress Board Representative Paul Bowers Sr.

Cypress wrote: “Many of our Tribal members served in ‘Nam’ and made it back. It was a hard time for all. Our people always appreciate our veterans and to us, they are all heroes, never forgetting that many have given their lives so that we can have a better world to live in and raise our children.”

Bowers, who received two Purple Hearts for his valor in the Vietnam War, wrote: “Seminole people respect our veterans for the service and duty they have performed for their Country and their Tribe. It is important for our children to know the past and to always learn of the bravery of our people.”

The Tribal officers present all spoke and paid tribute to the veterans. Brighton Council Representative and veteran Andrew Bowers said he was moved to see so many people at the celebration and thanked them for coming.

“Whether you agree with what’s going on [in Iraq] or not, those guys and women over there deserve your support,” he said. “They are doing their jobs. They didn’t make the decision to be there. They deserve your support; so give it to them.”

Hollywood Council Representative Max B. Osceola Jr. said: “Today we honor all the vets, all the warriors who served their nation and the United States. I am going to quote Churchill and say ‘Never in the annals of history have so many owed so much to so few.’ ”

President Moses Osceola said: “It is our Tribal veterans we are here to honor and they are the ones who should be up on this podium.”

He announced that the veterans in Brighton are building a veterans hall and when it is completed all the veterans will be invited to the grand opening. He said veteran Stanlo Johns of Brighton set up a display outside the entertainment complex with a model of the new building that is in the shape of five stars and everyone was invited to take a look at the plans.

Acting Superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, veteran and Native American, Mary Helen Umholtz, said it was an honor to be asked to participate in the ceremony. Umholtz is also a member of the VIETA Color Guard.

“I want to say thank you to all the veterans and I also want to pay tribute to all wives and children for holding together the home front and waiting for the warriors to return home,” she said.

Ft. Pierce Liaison Sally R. Tommie said: “We are grateful for your sacrifice. Freedom is not something that can be bought, you can’t inherit it, and it is not in the family tree. We only have it because of our veterans.”

Later in the ceremonies Tommie gave the traditional reading of the poem “Four Hats to Remember.”

Others spoke and honored the veterans including Reverend L.W. Howard of Faith Chapel Family Worship, Miss Seminole Princess, Brittany Yescas and Jr. Miss Seminole Princess Tianna Garcia. And three Seminole youth from Ahfachkee School, Rodni Mercer, Alexis Aguilar and Tequesta Tiger, recited essays they wrote especially for the occasion.

The primary guest speaker was Orson Swindle, a Vietnam veteran who was a prisoner of war for 2,305 days. Swindle retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1979 as a lieutenant colonel with 20 military decorations including two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Swindle has held numerous top positions in U.S. government including seven years with the Federal Trade Commission. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Washington, DC think tank.

“I salute you, the Seminole Tribe, for your patriotism, your service, your pride that makes you what you are,” said Swindle. “I am a republican and we just got our butt’s kicked in the elections but that’s our American democracy. We just witnessed a change in government–and not a shot was fired! That’s part of our democratic heritage that our veteran’s go out and fight to protect.”

Veteran Joseph P. Mc Cain was also invited to speak. His words were heartfelt. McCain said he had arrived a day early and visited the Seminole museum and the Tribe’s headquarters meeting many of the Seminole leaders. Both he and Swindle were presented with Seminole jackets and McCain said he was very proud to wear it.

“I learned about the Seminole history,” he said. “The Seminole’s are clearly some of the toughest fighters. I am so proud and so honored to be here. I only wish all non-Indian peoples could be here today and see this ceremony.”

McCain said that he never knew about the story of the “Unconquered Seminoles” but was humbled when he learned of it. He said the example of how the Seminoles today have set aside the hurt done to them in the past and have served the country through World War II to the present was inspiring.

Throughout the day it became evident there was one person working all the time. He operated quietly and efficiently in the background, not looking for attention but making sure people were well taken care of, guests were introduced and presenters knew where they needed to be. It was Stephen Bowers, a major force behind the Seminole Tribe of Florida Color Guard. Bowers served in the US Army in Vietnam and received the Bronze Star.

Stephen Bowers and Paul Bowers Sr. presented the posthumous veteran acknowledgements to the Herbert Cypress and Clyde Tiger families.

Presenting the families with specially-designed plaques they told about these two very loyal men and their exceptional service to their Tribe and their country. In the program booklet there are two pages set aside to describe the lives and biographies of these fellow veterans whose presence is missed today.

Herbert Cypress was stationed with the US Army in Germany in the late 1950s as a member of the Army’s reconstruction and peacekeeping force. Clyde Tiger served in the US Air Force. He served aboard the DC3/C47 as air crewman from 1963 to 1967.

Then, as an annual tradition, special recognition was paid to two veterans this year who are still living. The men honored were Archie Johns Sr. and Russell Osceola Sr., both from Brighton.

Johns served as a member of the Seminole Tribe Color Guard and was one of the early enlistees among the Tribe joining the US Army and serving in the 45th Infantry in the Vietnam War. Osceola received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star serving in the US Army from 1966 to 1968.

Finally, the moment everyone was waiting for; all of the veterans of the Seminole Tribe and guest veterans were asked to come forward for recognition. After the applause a reception line was formed and people came forward to shake their hands. A long line snaked around the hall.

The entire celebration was full of eventful and touching moments. The “Native American Honoring Song” was played by renowned flutist Micki Free and “Military Taps” was played by John Branzer. Drummer Richard Archuleta came forward spontaneously to sing the Hopi “Honoring Song.”

“This was a very solemn affair, a great day to show our respect and pride for our war veterans. They are the vanguard of our Nation. The freedom and liberty we enjoy today is because of their valor,” said legendary Promoter Don King. “The Seminoles are a great Tribe of warriors.”

Boye Ladd of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin talked about the problems associated with Agent Orange and asked the veteran’s groups to support those who suffer from the effects of war. Rick Coates of the Fort Lauderdale Veteran’s Chapter 23 brought a Vietnam Memorial Wall that has every name inscribed on it despite its miniaturized size.

After the event, VEITA Color Guard Commander Steve Miller wanted the Seminole Tribe to know what this day meant to him.

“I wish more people would celebrate this way,” Miller said. “We post colors at a lot of veterans’ honoring ceremonies in D.C. but you don’t see a lot of this type of thing. This was really great and one of the more elaborate Veteran’s Day ceremonies I have seen. The Seminoles are the friendliest people I have met and I have been all over the world.”