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Big Cypress gathers for Memorial Day program

President Mitchell Cypress, left, attends the Memorial Day program at the Seminole Veterans Memorial Fitness Trail in Big Cypress on May 31, 2021. (SMP photo)

Memorial Day in Big Cypress had an air of normality to it, if only because people attended in person rather than on computer screens.

A few dozen community members gathered May 31 at the Seminole Veterans Memorial Fitness Trail to honor the fallen.

“There’s a special sadness that accompanies the loss of service men and women,” said emcee S.R. Tommie. “No matter what we do to show our appreciation, it’s never quite good enough. What they gave us is beyond our ability to ever repay. So when a service person dies, it’s a tear in the fabric of our being. All we can do is remember them and honor all of those who died in defense of our country.”

Attendees remained socially distanced under a large tent as they listened to the speakers.

“We experience the freedoms we experience because of their dedication and sacrifices,” Tommie said. “When we imagine these soldiers, they are portrayed as greying old men and women; they are wise as we see them in our minds eye. But most of them were boys and girls when they crossed over, fighting for our country. They gave up two lives; the one they were living and the one they were supposed to live. When they crossed over, they gave up their chance to be husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles and grandparents. They gave up their chance to be loved and respected. They gave up everything for our country, for us. We must never forget them.”

Wearing a patriotic mask, Edna McDuffie attends the Memorial Day program in Big Cypress on May 31, 2021. (SMP photo)

Tommie asked everyone to keep these fallen soldiers in their hearts and prayers. With that, Jonah Cypress gave the invocation, Pastor Salaw Hummingbird, of Big Cypress First Baptist Church, said a prayer and elected officials spoke.

“We always want to pay respect to our tribal warriors,” said outgoing BC Board Rep. Joe Frank. “We’ve lost many due to battles once they got home. There is a lot of drama that goes on in warfare and our warriors have to live with it. I think as we continue on, we will join the mainstream American practice of celebrating Memorial Day. In the past its always been ‘these are soldiers that fought against our people,’ but for the last two, three, four generations these veterans all over the country are ones that have fought with us, for us. It is fitting that we pay respect to all of them and we pay respect to our fallen tribal warriors.”

Outgoing BC Councilman David Cypress acknowledged that although he didn’t serve in the military, he was appreciative of those who did.

Newly elected Councilwoman Mariann Billie quoted former President Barack Obama from a speech he gave on Memorial Day in 2011: “Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay.”

Paul Bowers provided some insight into why so many tribal members joined the military.

“I went to Indian school in Kansas,” Bowers said. “When we got back to the reservation, there was nothing to do and no jobs, so we went into the service. At least they paid you and fed you three meals a day. I went to Vietnam and got wounded, but I made it back. I’m glad I’m here.”

After he completed training for the National Guard, President Mitchell Cypress recalled going to Haskell Indian Nations University to see Bowers.

U.S. flags are displayed at the Memorial Day program. (SMP photo)

“Back then, the majority of men our age went into the military,” President Cypress said. “They were drafting us. A lot of them came back and ran the tribe. But we are sorry to see our veterans pass on.”

Pastor Arlen Payne, of Big Cypress New Testament Baptist Church, spoke about his family’s history of veterans going back to the civil war.

“I imagine every family here can go back and identify someone in their family who gave their lives,” said Payne. “Because they died, we can sit today under this tent and gather in freedom. I’m glad they stood up for what they believed in.”

Tommie said she knows what it means to miss family and lose a loved one.

“It’s an everyday hurt,” she said. “We keep them alive by talking about them, sharing the memories and experience with the younger ones who have not had the opportunity to meet them.”

Jacob Osceola Jr. related his experience when he came back from serving in the military. Older veterans, who he didn’t realize were veterans when he was a younger man, took him aside and said here is your brother.

“We all have friends and family who passed on, members who were influences, people who shaped the tribe,” Osceola said. “These people served as well, it was kind of an eye opener. Let’s remember these people.”

He read the list of fallen Seminole veterans, his voice cracking with emotion.

“Sorry, some of these gentlemen I knew well,” Osceola said. “Folks, I implore you, the ones that are still here today, talk to them, know them. You’ll never forget.”

After a moment of silence to honor the memory of those who gave everything, taps was played.

Flags line the fitness trail at the Memorial Day program. (SMP photo)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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