FORT MYERS — Native American culture was celebrated at Florida Gulf Coast University throughout November.
The second Native American Festival centered on the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, their involvement in the arts and how their values and cultures are passed along.
“This year we wanted to focus on people in our own community,” said professor Tatiana Schuss, an organizer of the event. “We are hoping to create a regular bond and connection to the Tribes.”
In an event on Nov. 14, the topic for exploration was the Princess program and included a panel discussion with Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie, Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie and Miss Florida Seminole 1985 Naomi Wilson.
FGCU student and Tribal member Lewis Gopher Jr. opened the program with some first-hand stories about the annual Princess Pageant.
He was a stagehand for the pageant and got to know it from behind the scenes.
“I heard the stories and saw the photos of the aunts and grandmothers who traveled the country and the world as Seminole princesses,” Gopher said.“Wanda [Bowers] needed an escort for the princesses and I had a nice suit. But she also needed me to carry out the props for the talent competition. I never got to dress up and walk next to a beautiful woman.”
The presence of strong women in her life encouraged Wilson to be independent.
She grew up on the Brighton Reservation, moved to Nashville at age 17, came back to Florida at age 24, competed in the pageant and won the crown in 1985. To date, she is the only princess to wrestle an alligator.
“Wrestling alligators was one of the first avenues of economic independence for my people and I had to show I could do it,” she said.
Wilson shared the history of the pageant, starting with the fact that the Seminole Tribe of Florida is a matriarchal society. The first princess, Connie Frank Gowen, was named in 1957 when the Tribe was federally recognized.
“She is still involved in the pageant,” Wilson said. “She is backstage at every pageant. As the ‘backstage grandma’ she helps, supports and encourages the girls.”
In 1960 a new economic venture, the Seminole Okalee Village, was built and a Princess Pageant was held there.
“It had the first and last swimsuit competition,” Wilson said. “Lawanna Osceola won that pageant. Her daughter LaVonne is involved in the program today.”
It isn’t unusual for generations of families to be involved in the program. Osceola’s granddaughter, Cheyenne Kippenberger, was Miss Florida Seminole and is currently Miss Indian World.
In 1981, the Jr. Miss Florida Seminole was added to encourage younger girls to aspire to Miss Florida Seminole.
Also in the 1980s, the Princess Committee was formed to help the Princesses with appearances and travel. The volunteer committee also took over running the pageants to add consistency from year to year.
“The Princess program allows them to grow and achieve their personal goals,” Wilson said. “They are ambassadors for the Tribe and become leaders in the Tribe. The title is treasured by all who reign.”
After a video of highlights of the last Princess Pageant was shown, Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie and Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie gave their take on the Princess program.
“I loved the bonds we made during the pageant,” said Billie. “We got to know each other and help each other out.”
Blais-Billie wants to use her platform as Princess to bring the Tribe’s perspective to the world at large.
“The program gives you a beautiful network of support from elders, the community and other young women. It is very uplifting and just the most wonderful thing ever.”
A lively question and answer period followed, starting with one from Gopher, who wanted to know how it felt to have young women look up to them.
“It’s one of the things I love most about it,” said Billie. “I was a Little Miss Florida Seminole before they ended the program. I want to bring it back to the Tribe.”
“Being a role model is very important,” added Blais-Billie. “It’s important to be able to see strong Indigenous women.”
Rev. Houston Cypress, of the Miccosukee Tribe, asked since past Princesses helped the current ones, what is their advice for the next Princess contestants?
“Don’t be afraid to be yourself,” Blais-Billie said. “I wasn’t sure what they were looking for in a Seminole woman, but there isn’t just one way to be a Seminole woman.”
Wilson noted that she didn’t have the opportunities these Princesses do, but the role of Princess is what each one makes it.
When the Princesses are out in the world, they invariably encounter individuals who may never have met a Native American. A question about how they educate those people was posed.
“Coming from the reservation to a private school, I get a lot of questions like that,” said Billie. “They even ask if we have running water and wash our clothes in a river.”
Billie said she tries to laugh at those questions and move on.
“I’ve learned to be diplomatic about it,” added Blais-Billie. “We have to have a lot of patience. In this role you have to maintain relationships and learn how to voice your opinions patiently.”
The Princesses were asked what living in a matrilineal society meant to them.
“I can’t imagine life without it,” said Blais-Billie. “It’s ingrained in our culture to respect our women.”
“It empowers us to reach our goals,” added Billie.
Wilson gave a more historical answer.
“We are the ones who helped us survive,” she said. “If there was an elder woman in your camp, you had to listen and respect her. It’s hard to think of any other way of life; it’s who we are.”
Someone in the audience of a couple dozen people, mostly students, asked if the pageant elevates the status of women.
“One of our main roles in the program is to maintain relationships outside of our community,” said Blais-Billie. “It shows we put women in respectful and responsible positions. We maintain our society and the pageant showcases the value of women.”
Kippenberger has been very present in the Tribe and outside of it since she was crowned April. The question was how it affected the pageant.
Wilson said it had a positive impact and may have been the reason so many more girls competed in the pageant.
“She brings so much opportunity to us and has brought a lot of attention to the Tribe,” Blais-Billie said.
“Her presence on pageant night helped us and made us all better contestants,” Billie added.