BIG CYPRESS — The newly opened To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center is living up to its Ela-pon-ke name; it truly is “a place to gather” in Big Cypress.
Located in the old pool hall next to the Billie Johns Sr. Ball Field, the building was built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1950s. The newly recognized Seminole Tribe held Council meetings in the building as Tribal children played outside.
“We used to come here to sit and listen, but we just wanted to play,” said BC Board Rep. Joe Frank. “We ran around and played games outside, but you’d hear the adults debating issues in there. The conversation was heated, but controlled. It’s good to see this building being put back to use to benefit our community and Tribe.”
Operated by the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, the center held an open house May 3 and welcomed community members to spend some time inside.
“This is a place to learn, a place to remember and preserve our community,” said Quenton Cypress, THPO community engagement manager. “We want people to know they can use this building as a community resource.”
The newly refurbished building features new flooring, renovated bathrooms, comfortable couches and chairs, pool tables, foosball, pinball and air hockey games. The space can be configured in a variety of ways to accommodate different types of functions. Community events, graduations, birthday parties and meetings are just some of the uses for the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne. A few departments have already held meetings there.
“We’ve had a lot of tourists come through here and I thought this could be a good information center,” said BC Councilman Mondo Tiger. “We have kids growing up who don’t really know about their history and this will be a good place to learn about it. We are very proud to tell our story; how we came from poverty to where we are today.”
Two permanent displays are already in place inside; one about the different reservations and the other about the Seminole cattle industry. The museum’s oral history office is located in the building, making it convenient for Tribal members to come and share their history with Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s oral history archive.
“Quenton and [Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki oral history coordinator] Justin [Giles] took an idea from Mondo [Tiger] and put it together,” said Paul Backhouse, senior director of the Heritage and Environment Resources Office and THPO Officer. “It’s good to see Quenton, who started at THPO as a SWEP [student work experience program] employee, in charge of this building. This space is for the community to have conversations, learn and talk about things going on around the Tribe.”
Tiger also remembered playing outside of the building as a child. There were a lot of firsts in the building, including the 4-H projects and cattle owners meetings.
“We lived in chickees with no electricity or water,” Councilman Tiger said. “This building had lights; coming here was like going to the big city.”
Virginia Tommie also grew up in BC and worked in the Head Start program in the 1970s, which was housed in the building at the time. Over the years, the building has been used for the culture department, senior center, for recreation activities and a pool hall.
“It was also used as a hurricane shelter,” Tommie said. “I remember being here during Hurricane Donna. Back then we were living in chickees so we had to come here to stay safe. I think it’s good that it will be useful again.”