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James Billie honored by the state for contributions to Florida folklife

TALLAHASSEE — Four distinguished Floridian folk artists and community leaders were honored April 13 with the 2019 Florida Folk Heritage Awards for their transformative, far-reaching contributions to Florida’s folklife. The awards were conferred by Florida’s Department of State and were presented during a ceremony at Word of South, an annual festival of literature and music in Tallahassee.

Among the honorees was former Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman James Billie, who was recognized with a Folklife Advocate award for his resolute and effective championing of Tribal sovereignty, his decades-long commitment to preserving traditional Seminole language and culture and his own considerable artistic achievements as a Grammy-nominated songwriter.

Billie, who was born of the Bird Clan in Dania, Florida, was elected chairman of the Seminole Tribe in 1979 after completing two tours in the Army during the Vietnam War. His first tenure as chairman spanned 22 years, ending in 2001. Ten years later, Billie was re-elected Chairman, serving for a second stint from 2011 to 2016. His years of tribal leadership distinguish him as one of the longest-serving elected political officials in the world.

2019 Florida Folk Heritage Award recipient James Billie holds his award with his son Eecho, Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee and Chair of the Florida Folklife Council Annette B. Fromm during a ceremony April 13 in Tallahassee. (Photo Stacy Prato)

During his tenure as chairman, Billie advocated unrelentingly for the enrichment of Seminole folkways. He instituted several strategic programs designed to chronicle and preserve the Tribe’s unique cultural history, including the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation and the Seminole Camp at the Florida Folk Festival — where trained scholars of Seminole culture educate community members about tribal traditions each year.

Billie is also credited with spearheading the development of a modern tribal broadcasting department and with revamping The Seminole Tribune, two efforts that continue to facilitate enduring, professionalized storytelling about the daily lives and cultural contributions of Seminole Tribe members.

While he admitted that receiving formal recognition for his historic career of advocacy and leadership may be a somewhat unfamiliar feeling, Billie said his award reaffirms the importance of robust, community-based initiatives for the preservation of traditional Seminole language and culture.

“It’s interesting, I’m not accustomed to getting awards; I’m generally the one who’s handing them out,” he said. “But if it wasn’t for the language, the legends and the customs, there wouldn’t be a Seminole Tribe. I always encourage the younger generation to learn something about their history, and I’m proud of my tribe for maintaining their heritage.

“Even the younger generation, when you see them, you might think they know nothing, but they know quite a bit about their traditions. The Seminole Tribe maintains its culture through programs like the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum in Big Cypress, or through language immersion programs like you see in the Brighton Reservation, where they’re teaching their young children the language. Culture, legends, stories and language are very important to us.”

Billie was one of four celebrated folk artists and advocates to receive Florida Folk Heritage awards at the ceremony. Tina Bucuvalas, curator of arts & historical resources for the City of Tarpon Springs, joined Billie in receiving the Folklife Advocate Award for her more than 30 years of steadfast work preserving the contributions of traditional folk artists in South Florida and beyond.

Folk Artist awards were presented to Jane Wells Scott, a scholar and instructor of traditional Irish fiddle who has played an indispensable role in the preservation and exchange of folk traditions in North Florida, and Michael Usina, a St. Augustine native of Minorcan heritage whose life’s work maintaining and promoting the hand-made net-crafting techniques passed down by his ancestors has positioned him as a leader in the Florida folk art community.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee, who presided over the ceremony and presented the awards, said the honorees represented the legions of folk artists, scholars and advocates throughout the state whose work is key to sustaining and communicating Florida’s vibrant cultural heritage.

“We’re fortunate to have so many Floridians who have brought tremendous distinction to our state through their careers and their tireless devotion to their crafts,” she said. “Their work has touched and inspired countless people, and it’s fitting that we honor them for their influence and their brilliance.”

Established in 1985, the Florida Folk Heritage Awards are based on public nominations and recommendations from the Florida Folklife Council. The awards honor the state’s foremost bearers of tradition for their advocacy of, and demonstrated excellence in, the traditional arts.

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