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Get to know your new Seminole princesses

Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie

By: Damon Scott

Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie (Courtesy Photo)

If you were wondering what to expect from the new Miss Florida Seminole over the next year – read on for a few clues.

Durante Blais-Billie, of the Hollywood Reservation, was crowned Miss Florida Seminole on July 27.

The exciting moment marked the start of a journey that will take the 22-year-old to many events and appearances around the Tribe and beyond during her yearlong term.

The judges were clearly impressed. In addition to the title, she won the essay and talent portion of the pageant.

In the talent portion, Blais-Billie talked about the role of sweetgrass baskets in Seminole history and showed how one is made.

The judges also took note of her answer to the impromptu question: Why is the Everglades significant to the Seminoles?

“I think there’s a strong historic significance as during the three Seminole wars it was a refuge for our people as well as in the early 20th century it provide lots of the materials for our unique crafts,” she said. “In contemporary times, we now act as the guardians of the Everglades [and] speak up on behalf of the nature there.”

Education, activism

Road to art

Blais-Billie said her love of history is due in large part to her father’s influence.

She is the daughter of France Blais-Billie and the late July Billie. Blais-Billie attended the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale and then went on to earn a degree in art history and a master’s degree in management from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“I wanted to come back to Florida and integrate myself back in the Tribe,” Blais-Billie said. “It was hard to be away.”

She said she’s now ready to blend the traditional ways of the Tribe into the views and leadership skills she learned in her formal education.

In her study of management at St. Andrews, she specifically focused on diversity and equality issues.

One of her main causes is working to erase the barriers Indigenous People face in formal education.

As part of that, Blais-Billie wants to use her reign to bring attention to the stigmas that often prevent access to higher education.

Some of the stigmas stem from history, she said – forced assimilation, the challenges of missionary and reform schools and a warped Native self-identification.

Blais-Billie said the higher education experience is often simply not congruent with the life experiences of Indigenous People.

“The external stigmas or the way Western-style classes are taught,” she said. “For example, direct eye contact is expected and speaking up in class is valued.”

She points out that traditionally, Natives do not maintain eye contact, are taught to listen, and let elders speak first.

There’s a cultural dissonance in many Western curriculums, she said.

“Often the way education is taught tells us our knowledge systems are wrong,” Blais-Billie said. “Some Indigenous People simply don’t pursue higher education because they are afraid to be seen as too westernized.”

Along the way, Blais-Billie’s developed a career interest in modern art and museum curation.

At first, she thought she’d pursue a career in the hospitality industry somewhere in Florida.

Blais-Billie had admired Meg Gilbert Crofton, the former president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts – she even immersed herself in an internship at the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando.

Durante Blais-Billie, front right, walks with some of her fellow graduates at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (Courtesy photo Durante Blais-Billie)

The internship gave her the experience of working in many different Hard Rock departments, but ultimately she decided it wasn’t a match. Blais-Billie said she’s grateful for the valuable knowledge and experience she gained, however.

It was the interest in art history and the pursuit of a degree that would shape her long-term career goals more profoundly.

Blais-Billie said she’s drawn to museums and exhibits. She’s participated in Nova Southeastern University’s Cobra Circle – and struck up a friendship with Bonnie Clearwater – the director and chief curator for the NSU Art Museum in the process.

“She cares a lot about Seminole contemporary art,” Blais-Billie said of Clearwater.

The goal of the Cobra Circle is to seek out and develop the next generation of leaders in Fort Lauderdale.

Blais-Billie has also helped curate a Seminole exhibit in collaboration with Tara Chadwick, the curator of exhibitions at History Fort Lauderdale. It starts showing in November and runs through January.

So, what is it, exactly, about art that appeals to Blais-Billie?

“I’m very into the theory of art perspectives beyond the conical narrative,” she said. “Art beyond the central narrative. Modernity. How the Seminoles have become modern. Our own interpretation of things.”

Yes, it can sound a little intimidating.

“I’m very into theory and curating – the way you make a room so the viewer can interact with the art,” she said. “That’s something that’s important to me. Art in itself is very political in the historical context. The definition of art should not just be the classical narrative.”

Blais-Billie also likes film and music. She has a particular fondness for silent movies – silent film actor Harold Lloyd is one of her favorites – a “pioneer of comedy,” she said.

Two of her other passions are jazz and opera. She’s been to an opera in both London and Paris.

Which brings up travel – another of her passions. She’s traveled throughout much of Europe and Vietnam already.

About a year ago, she was able to fulfill a dream trip to Egypt and a cruise down the Nile River.

Next steps

Blais-Billie said she’s appreciative that Tribal leadership allows a lot of autonomy within the role of Miss Florida Seminole. She has some sway over which events she attends and the outreach she does.

Along with Tribal duties, she plans to speak to university audiences and to Tribal youth programs.

She is already in the midst of designing a workshop for children from third to fifth grades on different ways of understanding visual culture.

Blais-Billie is also looking forward to the eventual trip to the Miss Indian World competition at the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque next April.

She hopes she can bring the title back to the Tribe as Cheyenne Kippenberger did this year.

Blais-Billie is also looking forward to the eventual trip to the Miss Indian World competition at the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque next April.

She hopes she can bring the title back to the Tribe as Cheyenne Kippenberger did this year.

Jr. Miss Florida Seminole
Aubee Billie

By: Beverly Bidney

Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie. (Courtesy photo)

Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie knew from a young age she wanted to represent her Tribe. At age 5 she competed in the Little Miss Florida Seminole pageant and the experience stayed with her for the next 11 years.

In July she was crowned Jr. Miss Florida Seminole at the 62nd annual Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant.

“I decided to enter the pageant this year because I wanted to get back into my culture,” said Billie, 16. “I really want to be a representative for younger kids and be an outlet for them if they have questions about the Tribe.

We are the ones who will be in the leadership positions when we get older, so learning this now is great for us to understand how the Tribe works and shapes us.”

An 11th-grader at The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, Billie keeps busy with parts in musical productions – she is in rehearsals for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” in which she has the lead role of Esmeralda – and her hobbies archery, beading and singing.

She also sings in the school choir and will perform with the Radio City Rockettes in New York City in December. And she is training to compete in archery in the Indigenous Games next summer.

Aubee Billie played the lead role in The King’s Academy performance of ‘Miss Saigon’ in April. (Amber Loveland/ The King’s Academy)

Her duties as a princess add to her busy schedule with trips to Oklahoma and Tallahassee as well as local appearances.

Competing in the pageant was about connecting and forging friendships with the other girls. Pageant week brought the eight contestants together for a few transformative days.

“It was so much fun meeting all these girls who have the same passion as you do,” Billie said. “Meeting them from different reservations and seeing their perspectives on life was great. I made really great friends that I wouldn’t have made anywhere else.”

The winning moment was a bit surreal; she wasn’t expecting to win.

“It was crazy to think that just one girl would get the crown and that I was the one that got it,” Billie said.

She grew up in Brighton; her parents are Maria and former Chairman James Billie. She stays in West Palm Beach during the school week and goes home on the weekends.

She plans to study musical theater in college and pursue a career on Broadway after graduation.

The goal for her reign is to connect with other Tribal members and achieve an understanding of what the Tribe has gone through.

“I want to meet different people in our Tribe and share our story about how we truly are unconquered with other Tribes,” she said. “Serving as princess is a lot, but it’s really exciting. I’m proud to represent our Tribe in a great manner.”