Reverend Frank Billie

By Michael James

Frank Billie came to the Big Cypress Reservation on December 10, 1937. It was an unsettled time for the Seminole people for many reasons. The shift from life in the wilderness to life on the reservation had begun. The rapid urbanization of Florida was evident and much of the open territory was quickly being fenced in. Housing projects, highways, and massive construction squeezed the migration lifestyle of the Seminole even more.

Settlement on the three reservations increased. Persuasion by the Bureau of Indian Affairs agents and the leadership of elders helped influence many to come to the reservations and by the mid 1950s many Seminole lived at least part time on the reservations.

Reservation life was in a chickee. There was no Tribal Government and no one to speak on the behalf of the Seminole when it came to dealing with whites and their local governments. Consequently, this lack of representation isolated the Seminole from any privileges that are enjoyed today, including the participation in local elections. The geographic distance between the reservations and the poor roads alone were a major obstacle in forming the communication links necessary to establish a workable Tribal Government. According to Frank Billie, "it was a two hour trip to Clewiston, then you had a couple of more hours to Hollywood. I-75 wasn't there then."

The story of the first Chairman and the establishment of the Seminole Tribe of Florida may have well ended here had it not been for a water problem common to at least three different parties. "At that time I worked for the government and the agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs was Kenneth Marman," said Billie. In the absence of a Tribal Council the Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed trustees from each of the three reservations to handle Tribal affairs off Tribal in lieu of not having a Tribal Government. The trustees appointed by Mr. Marman were Frank Billie, Johnny Cypress, and Henry Osceola for the Big Cypress Reservation. Appointed at Brighton were Charley Micco, Frank Shore, and Jack Smith.

"At that time the Seminole people had no power or legal authority," said Billie. "A situation happened at the Brighton Reservation. There were two canals (Indian Prairie and Harney Pond) that went through the reservation and they flooded. The resulting sheet flow of water through the area spelled chaos for surrounding cattle ranchers. One of those affected was the Lykes Brothers operation. The water would flood the land and the cattle couldn't find anything to eat. The high spots in the land looked like little islands and the cows stood on them to get out of the water."

Lykes and other cattlemen came to the Seminoles asking if there could be anything done to control the water. The Seminole people could do nothing, says Billie, because they did not have the strength or recourse available. During this period in Seminole history, he explained, all profits from their cattle and agriculture operations were sent to Washington. Eventually the money made its way around Washington and then it came back to Dania. Once the money was in Dania, a government budgeted the money back to the Seminoles in order to employ more Indians. The Seminole people had no say so about how their money was budgeted, it was all left up to the government employee.

This disposition of money by the government concerned Billie. He had an idea that something should be done and he went to the people of Big Cypress in order to organize some power on behalf of the Seminole People. He also went to the people of Hollywood and Brighton in his efforts to unify the voice of his people. "Things were slow to get going, things didn't happen too quick," says Billie, "That was in 1955."

During this time the Articles of Incorporation for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. were also being completed and on Aug. 21, 1957 Frank Billie became the first President of the Board. He later resigned due to the long travel requirements.

Reflecting, Billie, 83, who became an ordained pastor on Dec. 13, 1980, says: "Back then we didn't have anything and everybody lived in chickees. We hardly had anything. I'm happy to see this, but I am concerned about the young people of the Tribe," he said. "They don't know the things we did, how things were. They may think that those things were nothing but I'm still happy to see these things come about for them,"

Michael James is a freelance writer based in Okeechobee.