BIG CYPRESS — History is known for containing the greatest lessons needed for a nation to grow, and for the Seminole Tribe, these lessons are a symbol of good fortune and hope for the future.
On Aug. 10, Tribal members gathered at the Big Cypress Tribal Oak on the side of Josie Billie Highway to honor a location that has remained instrumental in Tribal affairs and culture since the 1950s. Where this tree has stood for decades is where countless community members and leaders have sat for shade, stood in arms and discussed the future of the unconquered Seminoles.
Originally used as a meeting point to discuss the Tribe’s constitution, the tree is now a focal point of remembrance and appreciation for the Tribe’s fight for sovereignty. In commemorating this tree, the community has made a statement that the past will never be forgotten and the future will always remain hopeful.
To mark the location’s significance, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office unveiled a bronze plaque that explains the oak’s impact in the Big Cypress community.
Written on the plaque is the memory of Frank Billie, of the Wind Clan, who previously owned the house built next to the tree, and Jimmy O’Toole Osceola, of the Panther Clan, both who served as representatives from Big Cypress on the Tribe’s Constitutional Committee. It also acknowledges key leaders who helped shape the Tribe’s future: Frank Billie, John Cypress, Willie Frank, Jimmy Cypress and Johnson Billie.
Nearly 100 people attended the unveiling. Speakers included Board President Mitchell Cypress, Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank, Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger, Carol Cypress, Sue Jane Cypress and the Tribe’s royalty – Miss Florida Seminole Randee Osceola and Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Kailani Osceola.
President Cypress and Councilman Tiger reflected on growing up in Big Cypress and the role the celebrated oak played in their childhoods. They recalled going to the tree to drink sodas and watch shows on the television set that Frank Billie set up for them on his porch, located next to the tree, in the afternoons. They also remembered attending Council meetings and learning from Frank Billie about the trials and tribulations the Tribe faced from when he arrived in Big Cypress in 1937 to when the Tribe ratified their constitution and bylaws 20 years later.
Retelling these stories and sharing information with those who didn’t get to experience them is how, they said, the Seminole culture is preserved.
“This is a very historical place for us,” Councilman Tiger explained. “Seminole culture is not written; it’s told.”
The story of the historic tree became clearer as the speakers described that trees were traditionally used for learning from the Tribe’s past and planning for the future. The shade provided by trees created a comfort many desired to come together, effectively communicate and create an impenetrable community bond. Councilman Tiger and other tribal leaders tried for years to have this message shared and preserved with the Tribal Oak, and THPO ensured this dream became a reality.
Victoria Menchaca, compliance review specialist at THPO, coordinated the event so the Tribe has a means of honoring the symbolism of the Tribal Oak. She explained that commemorating historical places gives tribal members a tangible connection to their past.
“It is something they can go to see, feel and experience. It is something they can take their children to and say, ‘Look, this where we united to prevent termination,’” she said. “The Seminoles lost so much due to persecution and everything that we can do to preserve what history they have left and the things they have accomplished in the face of persecution is important in and of itself and for future generations.”
Along with honoring the tree with a historic marker, THPO also added the site to the Tribal Register of Historic Places. The Tribal Oak is the 19th site to be added to the list, which allows the Tribe to protect historical and cultural lands, as well as review and regulate federal projects that take place on tribal lands.
The Council Oak in Hollywood is also on the list.
Menchaca said the Tribal Oak and Council Oak were important meeting places during the creation of the Tribe’s constitution and charter. While the Council Oak represents the entire Tribe, the Tribal Oak is a local symbol for the Big Cypress Reservation.
“They are both symbols of how the Tribe united to avoid termination and were set on a path that has led them to the success that they have now,” she explained.
While the two sites of the trees are full of memories and appreciation for older generations, tribal members hope younger generations will look to them as symbols of community, strength and hope.
“I’ve lived long enough to see the Tribe change and see the way we’re going. We’ve worked so hard,” Carol Cypress said. “But it’s important for us to keep going and show our history to the younger generations.”
Randee Osceola agreed with Cypress and explained that it is up to her and her peers to learn from the history shared. She said learning and growing is as simple as reading books and asking the elders about their experiences.
“It’s important for [younger generations] to see how we’ve grown as a tribe and as a nation,” she said. “It’s good to always come back to your roots and learn from them.”