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‘Indian Day is every day’

Trail Indian Day10
Children gather around a table outside a cooking chickee Sept. 30 to mix and knead pumpkin frybread for competition during the Trail community Indian Day festivities.

Ask a dozen Tribal members what Indian Day means to them and most answer in the same basic way.

“Indian Day is every day,” said Jennie O. Billie, of Trail.

“It’s all the time,” said Josh Jumper, of Big Cypress.

“It’s life,” said Mary Tommie, of Fort Pierce.

Though observed throughout Indian Country on various days and under different monikers, the designated holiday for celebrating all things Native for the Seminole Tribe fell on Sept. 25 with a tribalwide day off.

Individual reservation celebrations were staged during late September through early October. Schedules were packed with clothing and craft competitions, traditional meals and fun contests that included frybread cooking, canoe races and skillet tossing.

Amy Yzaguirre, special event coordinator for Big Cypress, said the games provoked easy laughs but also reminded participants of hard times when life depended on surviving in the Florida wilderness. The Big Cypress event was held Oct. 1 at the Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena grounds.

“Today we compete against each other by doing things our parents and grandparents did to live. For instance, those skillets get very heavy when you move them around all day long cooking over a fire,” Yzaguirre said.

Shamy Tommie, director of Chupco Youth Ranch in Fort Pierce, agreed.

While flipping burgers Sept. 23 on a backyard barbecue grill complete with a smoker, Tommie shared memories of his great-grandmother Sally Chupco, who spent entire days toiling in a cooking chickee just to keep his family fed.

“I can see her now at the fire making spam and rice. And when she wasn’t at the fire, she was at the sewing machine making our clothes,” Tommie said.

For Mary Tommie, who grew up in a camp just 2 miles southeast of the Fort Pierce community where there was no electricity or plumbing, Indian Day fueled her growing concern that younger Tribal members could easily lose touch with their roots.

She worried that the Seminole culture and tradition could be a thing of the past in the very near future if younger members do not “learn and live” Seminole ways.

“Kids these days have to think twice about our heritage and what it took to actually, really survive the hard way. It wasn’t that long ago at all when checks did not appear like magic,” Mary Tommie said.

Native American Day, American Indian Day or Indian Day is usually established by proclamation by state or city governments for the fourth Friday in September. No national day for Native American recognition has been set aside by Congress. Some governments recognize the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. Four states – California, South Dakota, Minnesota and Washington – have officially replaced Columbus Day (Oct. 12) with Native American Day or Indigenous People’s Day.

Last year Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared Sept. 26 as American Indian Day.

Attempts to create national recognition began in 1914 when the Boy Scouts of America set aside a day for “First Americans.” The move was fueled in 1915 when the National Congress of the American Indian Association approved a plan to make the second Saturday of each May as American Indian Day. The plan planted a seed, but no formal designation was made.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a resolution that made November 1990 National American Indian Heritage Month. Similar proclamations have been made by the White House annually since 1994, the last by President Barack Obama on Oct. 31, 2014.

“The funny thing is that non-Natives give us one day, but we live it every day,” said Jennie O. Billie.

Huggins Camp set the scene Sept. 30 for the Trail community Indian Day festival where deer skinning and bingo drew equal attention. Frybread, clothing and log peeling contests were scattered throughout the afternoon.

Ted Billie, who placed first among men ages 55 and older in the log peeling contest, said he waited all day to win something that is second nature.

“There was no way I could lose at what I’ve been doing all my life,” Billie said.

On Sept. 25, about 300 members of the Brighton community celebrated Indian Day at Tucker Ridge, a former rock mine on the Brighton Reservation. Brighton Board Rep. Larry Howard said he hoped the event would be the first of many at the site.

“There are no houses out here, just Mother Nature. We brought the event out to the woods where it should be, in the midst of our land,” Rep. Howard said.

Norman “Skeeter” Bowers said he remembers swimming and fishing at Tucker Ridge when he was a child.

“We want to revitalize this area again,” Bowers said. “Indian Day is time for us to celebrate that we’re Native Americans. All the activities are traditional; we do it to get the community outdoors together.”

Brighton’s radio station, WTIR-FM 91.9, blared what a disc jockey called “traditional Indian music” but mostly country music and classic hits. Like other reservations, families gathered under pop-up canopies and used recipes passed down through generations to compete in pumpkin and regular frybread cooking contests.

“It’s all in how you knead the dough,” said Salina Dorgan, who cooked with her niece Andrea Holata, but refused to divulge a secret family ingredient. “My mother, Alice Snow, taught me.”

Dorgan’s pumpkin frybread won first place in the 40-59 age category.

Hollywood’s Indian Day on Oct. 5 launched with canoe races on the lake at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. Meanwhile at the Culture Department, Seminole Police Department officers judged clothing, crafts and patchwork.

Competitions at the Hollywood ball field all related to chickee building and were dubbed “the warrior challenge.”

“We do things involved with our daily living in the Everglades,” said Bobby Frank, community culture manager. “It’s like work we used to do but we make fun out of it.”

Using a post hole digger, men swiftly dug 3-foot-deep holes to place thick cypress logs for chickee support. With brute strength, women gathered and then carried for 10 yards as many palm fans as possible. The most carried were 37 fronds.

“Indian Day is educational,” the Rev. Paul Buster said. “It’s good to take the time to learn our traditions and way of life. We pass on our knowledge to the younger generation, so it is very important.”

In Tampa, the community gathered Sept. 26 at the Lakeland property for a day of horseshoes, wood and soap carving, patchwork clothing contests and traditional meals.

Intermittent rain showers lowered the humidity and sent children and adults running back and forth from the horseshoe pits and playground areas to shelter beneath the cook chickee, where a dozen pans and pots of traditional food and sofkee simmered over wind-beaten flames.

On Oct. 7, Immokalee residents mixed things up when men and women competed in log peeling, fan tacking and log run events.

“It’s a challenge, but I always try to overcome challenges,” said Norita Yzaguirre, who peeled a log for the first time.

About 130 members of the community basked under the sun and in the company of loved ones.

Overall, the recurring answer for “what makes Indian Day special” was as commonly sweet as a grandmother’s frybread.

“It means a lot to see my family and everyone out here having a good time,” said Immokalee Reservation administrator Ray Yzaguirre III.

“It’s good to have the community come together and experience what our elders used to do to make a living,” said resident Gale Boone.

“Family comes out to visit and we get to make new friends. Everybody has fun and everyone is happy and positive,” Jennie O. Billie said.

Staff reporter Beverly Bidney and Special Projects Reporter Peter B. Gallagher contributed to this report.

 

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