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2023 princesses crowned at pageant

Newly crowned Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Tahnia Billie, second from left, and newly crowned Miss Florida Seminole Thomlynn Billie, second from right, take center stage at the Princess Pageant on July 29 in Hollywood. Cheering for the new royalty are former Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie, left, and former Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie, right. (Beverly Bidney)

HOLLYWOOD – The Seminole Tribe’s Princess Pageant returned July 29 after a three-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Dozens of excited family members and supporters gathered in the auditorium at tribal headquarters in Hollywood to cheer on the contestants who gave it all to vie for the titles of Miss Florida Seminole and Jr. Miss Florida Seminole.

Titleholders serve as tribal ambassadors and attend an array of events at the tribe and beyond. Former princesses have become tribal leaders and employees and have been influential across a wide spectrum.

Thomlynn M. Billie, 23, was crowned Miss Florida Seminole, while Tahnia M. Billie, 15, was crowned Jr. Miss Florida Seminole. Felicia H. Buck, 16, was first runner-up in the Jr. Miss Florida Seminole category. All three are from the Big Cypress Reservation.

The contestants spent days practicing, being interviewed and photographed, and interacting with each other, the judges, and the pageant committee. The competition requires public speaking, essay writing, wearing traditional clothing, a personal interview, demonstration of a traditional talent, and answering an impromptu question on stage.

While there were only three participants this year, it marked the return and revitalization of a tradition that first began in 1957, when Connie Frank Gowen of the Hollywood Reservation wore the first crown. The Jr. Miss Florida Seminole category was added in 1981. Michelle Madrigal Thomas of the Brighton Reservation was the first to attain the title.

Former Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie makes sure the crown properly fits Tahnia Billie. (Beverly Bidney)

‘Crowns dusted off’

It was a night of celebration for the contestants and the community, as well as an acknowledgement of past princesses, many who were in the audience or were back stage serving as pageant volunteers.

“It’s just great to be out and to be with the community again,” LaVonne Rose, tribal secretary and director of the princess program, said. “It’s nice to see the crowns getting picked up again and dusted off and getting ready to travel around the country again and making sure that the Seminole Tribe is represented.”

Thomlynn Billie has participated in the pageant since she was 12. She previously attended the Ahfachkee School and was salutatorian of the 2019 class. Billie said her mother, Jane Osceola Billie, is a mentor who taught her to let her talents shine and helped prepare her for life.

“I believe it is important to enter the pageant to become a good role model to your peers, whether you win or not, as long as you try to do something out of your comfort zone,” she said. “What I like about the pageant is being able to make unforgettable memories with new friends.” 

As Miss Florida Seminole, Billie said being a good role model is what’s most important.

“Not only for our Seminole people, but to all Indigenous people. I see Miss Florida Seminole as more of ambassador than just being crowned royalty, because we become a representative for our tribe and for all Native kind,” she said. “We can fully embrace our individuality and be proud to be a part of a rich Indigenous history and culture. I encourage others to keeping learning, whether that means learning how to speak our language, sew, do wood carving, do traditional crafts, cook, or prepare our traditional foods.”

Billie showcased traditional and modern Seminole patchwork that she created during the talent portion of the competition.

Tahnia Billie said she was involved in pageants when she was younger, and recently participated in several county pageants.

“What I like about it is that surreal feeling I get when I’m on the stage,” she said.

Billie is entering her sophomore year at Moore Haven Middle – High School and is a three-sport athlete in volleyball, basketball and softball. She’s vice president of her class and participates in 4-H.

“It was important for me to enter the pageant so I can do something for not only myself but for our people,” Billie said.

As Jr. Miss Florida Seminole, she wants to “be an outlet for the younger generations and be someone that they can relate to and talk to.”

Billie said one of her mentors is her grandmother, Jane Osceola Billie, who taught her about culture and family. (Thomlynn is Tahnia’s aunt).

In the talent competition, Billie demonstrated how to make a traditional Seminole baby hammock using string, cloth and sticks. At the end of the night, she was given the award for best essay, which was titled “Why I Would Like to Become Jr. Miss Florida Seminole.”

Meanwhile for Buck, the night would serve as her first pageant experience. Short of the crown, it was considered a success. Buck won both the Miss Congeniality award, which is voted on by her competition, and the talent award, where she demonstrated the process of sweetgrass basket making.

“My family encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try something new, which is also helping me be more in tune with my culture and who I am as a strong Seminole woman,” she said.

Buck said her mother, June Jumper, inspired her to compete. Jumper was a Jr. Miss Florida Seminole in 2001.

“I remember her telling me stories of her time with this distinguished honor,” Buck said.

Buck begins her junior year at LaBelle High School in August. She said her goal in the pageant was to make her loved ones proud and be an advocate for the tribe. 

“And to also pave a way for the future generations to come,” she said. “I hope to show the future generations that we can always branch out and chase our dreams and be a change in the world.”

Buck thanked her family for being her mentors and biggest supporters. She singled out her grandmother, Tammy Lee Billie, and aunts Kennedy Huggins and Mari Veliz.

“Donna Frank has also been a guide to me and has helped nurture my aspirations for the art of sweetgrass basket making,” she said. “I want to thank everyone who has played a huge role in my life, because I would not be the person I am today without them.”

Former Princess Durante Blais-Billie places the crown on Miss Florida Seminole Thomlynn Billie’s head. (Beverly Bidney)

Extended reigns come to a close

When Durante Blais-Billie and Aubee Billie were crowned Miss Florida Seminole and Jr. Miss Florida Seminole in 2019, respectively, the expectation was to serve a traditional one-year reign. But the pair would serve for two years, due to a pandemic that affected the pageant program and many other tribal departments and activities. The duo quickly shifted from a schedule full of travel and public appearances to online outreach.

“I am forever grateful to the princess program for supporting me and helping me find ways to serve my people despite all of the uncertainty of the pandemic,” Blais-Billie said. “Something I will always hold dear was the committee’s ability to empower me to explore who I am as a person.”

Blais-Billie created an online LGBTQ+ affirmation program called “Two-Spirit Tuesdays” in June 2020.

“As a two-spirit person myself, this project was deeply personal, transformative, and healing,” she said. “I’m immensely grateful to have been able to take on this challenge while serving as princess, as it brought a sense of liberation to have the tribe officially support this work.”

During her reign, Blais-Billie served as assistant director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and spoke on Indigenous rights at a climate conference. She is currently an anti-human trafficking specialist for Hard Rock International.

Blais-Billie said one of the most profound memories of her reign was hosting, and then visiting, the Indigenous Ainu people of Japan prior to the pandemic.

“[It] meant so much to me … to officially pass on the goodwill of the Seminole Tribe across the ocean and represent our people on Ainu lands,” she said. “The most important takeaway I have from my reign is that support, collaboration, and connection are everything. I would not be who I am without these support systems.”

Blais-Billie’s mother is France Blais-Billie and her father is the late July Billie.

Miss Florida Seminole Thomlynn Billie describes patchwork during the talent portion of the competition. (Beverly Bidney)

‘Love and care first’

Aubee Billie, the outgoing Jr. Miss Florida Seminole, noted that she was a sophomore in high school the last time many in the audience had seen her in person.

“I am now entering my junior year of college (at Elon University) and double majoring in musical theater and business,” she said. “These past few years have been the hardest of my life, but have been the most beneficial and fulfilling within my career and self discovery.”

Billie, the daughter of Maria Billie and former chairman James E. Billie, said visiting the tribe’s youth home in Big Cypress to hand out Christmas presents was a moment during her reign that stands out.

“I will never forget the moment Durante and I walked in and instantly the children’s faces lit up. It make me feel so blessed to have a connection with these kids and give them such joy and happiness and to inspire those little girls to want to be princesses one day as well,” she said. “Some might see this as just a small moment, but for me it encapsulated the essence and core of why I love being Jr. Miss Florida Seminole – to bring joy to others and put love and care first.”

Brian Zepeda, Naples liaison, served as the master of ceremonies for the 66th annual pageant. Pageant judges were Dustin Cozad, a councilman for the Apache Tribe; Miss Indian World 2023 Tori McConnell (Yurok Tribe and Karuk heritage); and Regina (Burgess) Lankford (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma), a former princess, former tribal council representative, and current treasurer of the Seminole Nation’s personnel board.

The Princess Pageant volunteers, including the year they were Miss Florida Seminole, were Alice Billie (1997), Wanda Bowers (1968 and 1969), Charlotte Burgess (1987), Connie Gowen (1957), Cherelee Hall (2003), Cassandra Jimmie (2010), Christine McCall (2005), Randee Osceola (2017), LaVonne Rose (Princess Program director) and Naomi Wilson (1985).

Jr. Miss Florida Seminole contestant Tahnia Billie shows how to make a baby hammock from sticks and fabric during the talent portion of the competition. (Beverly Bidney)
Jr. Miss Florida Seminole contestant Felicia Buck gives a presentation about how to make sweetgrass baskets during the talent portion of the competition. (Beverly Bidney)
Newly crowned Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Tahnia Billie and Miss Florida Seminole Thomlynn Billie smile at each other on stage. Tahnia is Thomlynn’s niece, so this year’s royalty is a family affair. (Beverly Bidney)
Felicia Buck waves to the audience. (Beverly Bidney)
Outgoing Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie, left, and outgoing Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie present gifts to princess committee members who helped them through their reigns, including Wanda Bowers, Miss Florida Seminole in 1968 and 1969, who waves to the audience. (Beverly Bidney)
From left to right are Miss Florida Seminole Thomlynn Billie, Jane Osceola Billie, Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Tahnia Billie and Alice Billie. Jane Osceola is the mother of Alice and Thomlynn, while Alice is Tahnia’s mother, making Thomlynn and Tahnia aunt and niece, respectively. Alice Billie was Miss Florida Seminole in 1997. (Beverly Bidney)
Judges of the Seminole Princess Pageant visited the Frank Billie Field Office on the Big Cypress Reservation on July 28. From left to right are Regina (Burgess) Lankford, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma; Miss Indian World 2023 Tori McConnell, Yurok Tribe and Karuk heritage; and Dustin Cozad, Apache Tribe. (Courtesy photo)
Tahnia Billie speaks at a pre-pageant banquet July 28 in a ballroom at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. (Calvin Tiger)
Thomlynn Billie speaks at a pre-pageant banquet July 28 in a ballroom at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. (Calvin Tiger)
Felicia Buck speaks at a pre-pageant banquet July 28 in a ballroom at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. (Calvin Tiger)
Hollywood Board Rep. Christine McCall speaks at a pre-pageant banquet July 28 in a ballroom at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. Rep. McCall (2005 Miss Florida Seminole) spoke about the importance of the princesses and how the roles can benefit the tribal community. (Calvin Tiger)
Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at