It was there on the land, more than 80 years ago, that this year’s honoree Johnny Cypress, an original cattle keeper, was a trustee in the first loosely organized cattleman’s association, which became the forerunner to the Tribal government established in 1957.
“I was only nine or 10 years old when I heard dad talking about it, but I just wanted to play. He worked all the time. He drove that cattle from Okeechobee to Brighton to [Big Cypress] and back,” said his daughter Lydia Cypress, now in her mid-70s.
Lydia Cypress and relatives Fred Hall and Jeremiah Hall rode with the cattle drive in a swamp buggy.
She believes the family ranch where her older two brothers and two sisters often pitched in was located across the canal from where the Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena now stands. Her earliest memory of her father has him hollering at her to “get out of the way.”
“I tagged along and watched the branding and the pregnancy checks and such. There were no fences then and all the cattle owners’ stock would come together. It could be dangerous for a little girl who just wanted to play,” Lydia Cypress said.
The course of the commemorative cattle drive was also where Johnny Cypress helped carve from Everglades uplands a string of backwoods roads that would become today’s modern street grid – Josie Billie Highway included.
Lydia Cypress recalls traveling and camping whenever her father’s heavy machinery took him to dig out roads for community access – from South Bay to Palm Beach to Okeechobee and back to Big Cypress.
Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank reminisced during a snack break at the halfway point of the drive that Johnny Cypress also served a law enforcement role on Big Cypress. He drove a truck topped with flashing lights and when teenagers would meet up in groups late on weekend nights, he would chase them home by shining a spotlight their way.
Lydia Cypress remembers some folks calling her father “the barefooted sheriff.”
“My father was a man of few words, but when he spoke them we listened because he said what he meant,” she said.
Tribal Court associate judge and cattleman Moses Jumper Jr. gave a prayer and a nod to Johnny Cypress and then recited one of his poems in honor of the Tribe’s original cattlemen.
“Big Morgan Smith cracking the whip and riding along with old Samson Dixie … Those were the days of the big roundups, the family feast and the long cattle run,” Jumper read.
The run also honored a tiny Tribal member whose life ended tragically during the previous week. Little boots and a toddler’s cowboy hat were placed atop the saddle of a horse that was led riderless by Blevyns Jumper in memory of Ahizya Osceola, 3, the great-great-grandson of Junior Cypress, for whom the cattle drive is named.
Andrea Jumper, Ahizya’s aunt, said her father, Jonah Cypress, and her mother, Esther Cypress, provided Ahizya’s first boots and hat the night before the drive.
“He was a good baby, a sweet kid who takes his first and last ride today in spirit,” Andrea Jumper said before the drive began. “It’s terribly sad. In times like this we should take stock in our children, hold them closer and make this tragedy a call to action, to cherish their lives and never take them for granted.”
Few Tribal members participated in the event in respect to the Tribe’s traditional grieving period. Others chose to ride in remembrance of lives past. Rep. Frank said Ahizya’s family permitted the annual drive to continue as planned.
“Today we honor all cowboys and Native cowboys, those who set the path for us and those who cannot be with us today,” Moses Jumper Jr. said.