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In her own words: Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie visits Japan

By: Durante Blais-Billie

In the last weeks of November, I traveled to Japan as Miss Florida Seminole alongside my sister and chaperone Tia Blais-Billie, Miss Florida Seminole 2013-2014, to further our Tribe’s relationship with the Ainu people of Hokkaido.

The Ainu are one of two remaining Indigenous populations of Japan, and while their culture shares many similarities with Seminoles their modern history is much different, not receiving national recognition as Indigenous until early this year.

My trip was inspired by an Ainu group who visited our Tribe through Florida International University in 2016, where they travelled halfway around the world with a dedication to learning Seminole traditions and stories from our own voices.

In my title, I felt inspired to do the same; to use my platform to bring awareness to and amplify the voice of not just my Tribe but all Indigenous communities around the world so that we may gain sovereignty over our peoples’ stories and lives.

We were accompanied by Chuk Besher, executive producer of 3Minute Inc. who had worked on a previous Ainu-Seminole cultural exchange project and acted as our guide and translator.

My visit to the Ainu people of Japan began in Sapporo, the capital of the prefecture Hokkaido which is a northern island of Japan where the Ainu historically live.

Former Miss Florida Seminole Tia Blais-Billie and current Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie, both in the center, are joined by Akanko Ainu Theater performers and Mr. Akira Toko and Mr. Masao Nishida during the sisters visit to Japan in November. (Courtesy photo)

In Sapporo I started my Ainu immersion by meeting with the Hokkaido government’s Ainu Policy and Affairs dignitaries.

We sat down in the government’s headquarters with Satoshi Nagahashi, director general for Ainu Policy, and Mr. Masashi Nagaura, Ainu policy promotion bureau chief.

The intention of the meeting was to demonstrate the goodwill of the Seminole Tribe of Florida by sharing the Tribe’s history and culture with the officials, and to show our support of Indigenous peoples through our interest in Ainu wellbeing.

In return, Mr. Nahahashi and Mr. Nagaura discussed the government’s development in their relationship with the Ainu as well as the extent of direct collaboration with Ainu communities.

Central to our discussion was the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park to be opened in April 2020.

Durante Blais-Billie and Tia Blais-Billie with Professor Yuko Honda (first row, second from right) and students and faculty of the Urespa Club. Students are wearing medicine color beads made and gifted by Durante and Professor Honda is wearing a medallion made and gifted by Tia. (Courtesy photo)

Beyond learning about the government’s direct interest in promoting Ainu history and culture, I learned about the historical context of Ainu involvement in the Hokkaido government tourism strategies.

In my reflection, this aspect of the governmental relationship was most dissimilar to our history as Seminoles.

The Hokkaido government had explicit interest in the Ainu and had committed the resources of their tourism strategy to the exposure and sharing of Ainu culture, whereas the Florida state government has a much smaller investment with our Tribe in its tourism development.

Even on a national level, the National Ainu Museum will be the eighth national Japanese museum which demonstrates more promotion in cultural awareness than the United States federal government commits to the Seminole Tribe.

This reflection represented my larger takeaway from my time with the Ainu, which was the prevalence of cultural interest in the Ainu by the wider Japanese public.

The Hokkaido government’s Ainu policy officials plan to draw in over a million visitors per year to the National Ainu Museum, compared to the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s 15,991 visitors in 2017 as marked in the annual report.

As well the Hokkaido government’s 2017 guide “ Aiming at an Understand of the Ainu People” lists 16 major facilities with permanent Ainu exhibitions throughout Hokkaido.

From left, Masashi Nagaura, Ainu Policy Promotion bureau chief; Tia Blais-Billie, former Miss Florida Seminole; Durante Blais-Billie, current Miss Florida Seminole; Satoshi Nagahashi, Hokkaido government director general for Ainu Policy Department of Environment and Lifestyle; pose at Hokkaido government headquarters with a sweetgrass basket made and gifted by Durante. (Courtesy photo)

As I saw through our trip, the Irankarapte tourism campaign, named after an Ainu greeting meaning “allow me to softly touch your heart,” aimed to raise interest in Ainu culture was employed throughout Hokkaido with supporters as big as Sapporo Breweries Ltd. and local airports.

We then visited the Hokkaido Ainu Association and the Ainu Center the association runs by commission of the Hokkaido government.

Mr. Kazuki Kaizawa, secretary general of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, acted as our host, introducing us to the present staff, showing us the exhibit at the Ainu center, and sitting down with us for a cultural exchange.

Though Ainu communities don’t have formal internal governmental structures or acknowledged political sovereignty by the Japanese government, the Ainu Association acts as the spokesperson and organizational structure for Ainu communities across Hokkaido.

The association answers to the interests of the four main Ainu communities in the prefecture, and closely communicates Ainu affairs with the Hokkaido government.

While the Ainu don’t have sovereignty over their ancestral land, Mr. Kaizawa and I bonded over the importance of nature preservation and its connection to the survival of our cultures.

I explained the history of the Seminole Tribe and the central role of the Everglades in our existence and learned how the Ainu too were protected by the harshness of the nature in their environment as well as their own ingenuity in living amongst it.

As with the rest of our exchanges with the Ainu, the structure and survival of our clan system was a point of fascination.

The Seminole’s ability to maintain our traditional governing and family systems with preserved values and practices to follow was praised by many I spoke to for the unity it also preserved within our Tribe.

Still in Sapporo, we attended an Ainu Forum discussion titled “Ainu of Today” where Professor Yûko Honda acted as keynote speaker.

She explained the historic context as well as its resulting obstacles that limit and oppress present day Ainu people.

She then explained her initiative of cultural revitalization through her scholarship program and club, both called Urespa, at Sapporo University.

Isao Fukuhara, deputy mayor of Tomakomai, Japan, receives a sweetgrass basket from Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie. (Courtesy photo)

The Urespa Scholarship was awarded to Ainu students and maintained through their ongoing commitment to learn, uphold, and perform traditional Ainu practices such as wood carving, language, dancing, and music.

The students would then be in the Urespa club, where they practiced Ainu traditions and participated in Indigenous cultural exchange.

Professor Honda stressed the importance of language revitalization, recounting success models and her ambitions to bring the same consistent achievements to Ainu communities.

Students of the Urespa club then performed Ainu songs and dance, showing the success of club participation.

After the forum, we shared dinner with Professor Honda and a handful of Urespa club students.

I shared the story of the Seminoles and learned not just about Ainu culture, but each student’s aspirations for themselves and their communities.

It was exciting to have the students ask me questions about Seminole culture and see their interest in other Indigenous practices.

My sister and chaperone Tia Blais-Billie is a Seminole artist who bonded with the students over our respective culture’s traditional crafts.

We then left the capital, on our way to visit Lake Akan, a region in the east of Hokkaido where the Ainu group that visited Florida is based.

On our way as a gesture of goodwill, we visited the Tomakomai local government, the city where the Hard Rock’s proposed international resort in Japan would be built.

We were greeted by Isao Fukuhara, deputy mayor; Atsushi Kimura, executive director of general policy; Masahito Machida, executive director of International Resort Strategy; and Akira Narita, the director of international resort strategy.

I told them the story of our Tribe, how we came together during our wars, survived alongside our culture, and made history in the world of Native American gaming.

The local government was welcoming, showing great interest in Seminole history and customs.

I also expressed our Tribe’s interest in fellow Indigenous groups and the trip’s intention to foster a relationship with the Ainu.

I was glad to show them the people behind the Hard Rock brand and our Tribe’s role as a responsible global citizen not just in business expansion but in sharing our story of survival and supporting others.

We then stopped at Nibutani, an Ainu community hosting two museums, to visit the hometown of my friend Rie Kayano.

My trip to visit the Ainu in Japan was prefaced by a visit from a renown Ainu song and oral history performer, Rie Kayano.

Rie was born into the prominent Yamamoto family of the Lake Akan Ainu community, who helped lead the community in music and mythology preservation.

She then married the grandson of Shigeru Kayano, one of the most well respected modern Ainu figures for his scholarship and political leadership.

Rie visited our Tribe in early November on a journey of self-empowerment, to learn about our Tribe’s agency in business as well as our drive for cultural sustainability. During her visit I acted as host, introducing her to various tribal members, staff, and most importantly the Everglades.

Her visit was sponsored by Hard Rock Japan, to produce a documentary by 3Minute Inc. showcasing Hard Rock’s dedication to female empowerment and community investment.

After showing her my homeland I was able to visit her in Nibutani, meeting her mother and older sister.

Tia Blais-Billie, left, and Durante Blais-Billie in the Kushiro National Park. (Courtesy photo)

She then showed us her grandfather-in-law’s Ainu and Indigenous people’s artifact collection at the Kayano Shigeru Nibutani Ainu Museum.

Rie showed us traditional crafts, housing, and taught us the history of her grandfather’s legacy.

She then brought us to the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum. Kenji Sekine, the museum’s Ainu language instructor, explained Ainu customs and traditional resources, as well as the historical interest in the Ainu from external scholars.

Afterwards we made it to the Lake Akan region, where we toured nature and learned about traditional natural resources.

We visited the Lake Akan Ainu Kotan (Village), where we met with local artists and families, learning about the modernity of Ainu motifs and crafts through their transformation by young artists.

We closed our visit with a dinner hosted by Mr. Masayuki Onishi, representative director, Akan Tourism Association & Community Development Organization, with two respected elder community leaders in the Lake Akan region, Mr. Masao Nishida, Akan Ainu Crafts Association chairman, and Mr. Akira Toko.

The dinner began with Mr. Nishida offering a traditional Ainu greeting and thanks, which was returned by my greeting and thanks in Elaponke.

After, I explained the intention of my trip to foster the Seminole relationship with the Ainu and my gratitude for the warm reception from the Ainu communities I had met on my visit.

I stressed that the Ainu were commendable for their consistent outreach to Indigenous communities around the world as it is an inspiration for many Natives and my hopes for a lasting friendship between our people.

Both Mr. Nishida and Mr. Toko visited the Seminole Tribe in Florida back in 2016, and shared their reflections for their time in Florida.

We were able to spend the dinner comparing our peoples’ customs, values, histories, and struggles.

Dinner was followed by an Ainu dance and song performance at the Akanko Ainu Theater “Ikor” which enacted traditional ceremonies and festivities.

During the ending songs of each performace, the audience was invited to participate, so Tia and I were able to join in the fun around dancing around the fire alongside Mr. Nishida.

Even here the public interest in Ainu culture impressed me, with many people attending this routinely performed show so late on a weekday out in the seemingly isolated region of Akan.

In my time in Japan, I found that there were many tourists and members of the public all around, participating in museums, shows, and even the Ainu Forum.

The public interest in the Ainu and more specifically their culture was inspiring.

While the Ainu still strive towards gaining full agency over their story and cultural promotion, they capture the public’s attention in a way I hope our Tribe will be able to develop.

Visiting the Ainu reminded me that our Tribe can never take for granted the control we have over presenting our history to the world, and that we must always strive to create awareness for our traditions, values, and stories so that the public holds equal interest in them as they do with our successes in gaming.

What I believe is most important to our Tribe’s survival in today’s global context is sharing our story and making sure it is done in our own voice.

As Indigenous People, we must also remember to support our relatives around the world in doing the same.

All Native Peoples face similar struggles; we should promote each other’s liberties in reclaiming our identities for the benefit of all of our visibility.