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Keep your flame hook-chee high

James E. BillieWell, it’s been two and a half months now since I had the stroke. I am now able to walk with the help of a cane, and I am vigorously working with therapy on my shoulder and hand to return to full function. Right now I have my arm strapped to my side and, hopefully, with therapy, I’ll be back all normal again soon.

As you know, my profession was, and will always be, chickee builder and contractor. At my age, I had to stop wrestling alligators before I lost all my fingers! But my chickee business is still thriving, and based on my past experiences, I expect I will always have my chickee business going strong.

Talking about chickees, during the 68 years I’ve been on this earth, I’ve seen a few people burn down their chickee huts accidently while cooking. In fact, the first time I ever heard of someone burning down a chickee hut, I was 12 years old. It was 1956, and one of the Billie families from Hollywood burned down their cooking chickee. My grandfather made a statement to me at the time: “The younger generation has absolutely no knowledge how to build a fire and cook under a chickee hut.”

It was his understanding that young people had no respect for fire.

“When the younger generation builds fire, they build it too big, with tall flames,” he said, instructing me. “If you ever build a fire in a chickee, the flames should go no higher than hook-chee (your buttocks). Any flames higher than that are a waste of fire and heat.”

I never gave it much thought, but in 1982, I was now Chairman of the Seminole Tribe and hosting a reception at the Native Village. I hired Fred Osceola (who is deceased now) to cook up some barbecue for the party. I had a barbecue pit with a chickee top covered with palm leaves. I’m not sure if Fred had ever been told about the “Rules of Cooking under a Chickee.”

He started the charcoal with lighter fluid, and the flames shot up 4-6 feet, which is higher than anyone’s hook-chee! Needless to say, the tremendous heat caught the small chickee hut on fire and burned it down.

Here we were two hours before the party was supposed to start. We quickly restructured the roof with a tin top. In fact, this barbecue chickee hut still exists today at the Native Village. Fred Osceola and I were a little embarrassed by our mistake, but life goes on…

Then, just recently, the Housing Department called upon my services to build a chickee at one of the residences on the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation. They told me that one of the family members was building a fire under the chickee hut, and it caught fire and burned down. So we are in the process of rebuilding that chickee.

OK, so you might be wondering: Why this rhetoric about chickees burning down?

Well, the older generation had different rules about how to build a fire, and one of the most important ones was based on the fact that palm leaves are very flammable: You should never build a fire taller than your buttocks. The elders had a better, more descriptive term: hook-chee high. In other words, “The flame should never go higher than your hook-chee!” (In fact, even when you are building a fire to stay warm by, even in the open where there are no leaves above, the fire should never have a flame higher your hook-chee.)

Another important rule regarding chickees and fire: Women with long hair should tie it in a bun behind their heads and not allow it to hang down over their chests. Like palm leaves, hair is extremely flammable. There have been many reports over the past years of women getting their hair burned from cooking over a fire. It still happens. Even in recent times, I have seen young women cooking food, and their hair was in danger – in front of them instead of behind their heads.

There is an old Indian legend that says, “Fire is your brother. He will keep you warm and cook your food.” Fire does its work for you, so you must respect the fire. Whether you are cooking deer meat or bologna, break off a piece and throw it to the fire; share it with your brother. If you are smoking, share a little tobacco with the fire; the fire will appreciate that.

It’s amazing that when God made the earth, He made man and woman and all the animals to breathe air. Without air, man, woman and all the animals will die. That is the reason the Seminole Indians say, “Fire is your brother.” There can also be no fire without air.

I hope this little story helps anyone in the Tribe – or anyone on this earth – to learn how to build, control and respect fire. I hope everyone will remember what my grandpa said: “Always keep the flame hook-chee high!”


James E. Billie is Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.


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