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New THPO building opens in honor of Billy L. Cypress

BIG CYPRESS — The Tribal Historic Preservation Office finally has a home befitting its service to the Tribe.

The Major Billy L. Cypress Building opened to great fanfare Oct. 23. With about 10,000 square-feet of interior space, the building houses 20 THPO and 11 Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum employees.

There is also plenty of room for Work Experience Program (WEP) and Student Work Experience Program (SWEP) participants.

The legacy of Billy L. Cypress, the original THPO and museum director from 2002-2004, is on display in the building and in the work THPO does every day.

Carol Cypress, Betty King, Jonah Cypress and Marie Phillips sing a hymn Oct. 23 at the opening reception of the Major Billy L. Cypress Building. Next to them are a portrait of Billy L. Cypress, the first THPO officer, and a flag donated by Tribal member Martha Tommie. (Photo by Beverly Bidney)

A large tent was filled to capacity and then some for the opening ceremony as dignitaries commented on the impressive structure.

“Everyone has a story about what Billy did and what he gave,” said Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. “He dedicated himself to telling our story. His legacy lives on because we continue to tell our own story today.”

THPO’s mission is to support the Tribe’s efforts to sustain its cultural and historic resources. It also investigates, interprets, preserves and manages the Tribe’s cultural resources through community engagement.

The new building took about 14 months to complete and is large enough to hold all the tools necessary for the department to succeed in its mission.

“I think Billy would have been proud of his little project here,” said Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank. “Now it’s a full-fledged museum and we are ready to move forward. There is still a lot of history out there.”

Brighton Councilman Larry Howard noted the historic aspect of the day.

“This building will tell our story for years to come,” Councilman Howard said. “We as a Tribe crawled before we walked and today we stand here proudly and see the fruits of our labor.”

The building, located next to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, is decorated with large modern photographs of artifacts, Tribal members, landscapes and other details depicting the work done within its walls.

Even the elevator gives a nod to the building’s location; a mural of a native cypress swamp covers the walls from floor to ceiling.

“Sometimes we get caught up in the fast pace of 2019 and forget about who we are,” said Quenton Cypress, THPO community engagement manager.

“We fought to be here today and this is a great way to remind everyone. I encourage everyone to come by and bring your children.”

Beverly Bidney These life-sized bronze sculptures created by Bradley Cooley Sr. and Bradley Cooley Jr., titled “American Royalty,” represent 16th century Seminoles and can be seen in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s new sculpture garden on Josie Billie Highway. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Valerie Hauser, director of the office of Native American affairs at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, came from Washington, D.C., for the opening ceremony.

The ACHP is an independent federal agency that promotes the preservation, enhancement and productive use of the nation’s historic resources and advises the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy.

“I knew Billy and he would be proud of what the Tribe and THPO have accomplished,” Hauser said. “This is one of 194 Tribes with a THPO office, but in my 20 years of experience this Tribe is a leader. It is leading the nation in how to do it well. Tribal preservation is at the heart of Tribal sovereignty. Your work has helped the Seminole Tribe thrive.”

Former BC Councilmen Cicero Osceola and Mondo Tiger remarked about the impact Cypress had on the Tribe.

BC Councilman David Cypress credited former Chairman James Billie and Cypress for dreaming of building a museum.

“I’m glad we got it done,” said President Mitchell Cypress. “James [Billie] and Billy [Cypress] planted a seed that sprouted into what we have today.”

Former Chairman Billie reminisced about Billy Cypress; the two grew up together.

“Billy was always thinking ahead,” Billie said. “In the 80s we had a dream that we wanted a museum. It started with cypress logs and I thought it would be simple, but it was a little more sophisticated than that. We always wanted a Seminole to be in charge and Billy was instrumental in making sure we had the proper people in place. It seems like anything he touched he learned from and excelled at. It’s good for him to be remembered.”

The building’s sprawling ground floor houses the archeology department, a lab to process archeological artifacts and a large temperature and climate controlled vault to store them.

The second floor contains a bright and airy conference room, huddle rooms for informal meetings, a geographical information system (GIS) plotter and printer and a temperature and climate controlled records room with ample space to house project files, maps and other papers collected over the years.

“This is the first time everything is in one place,” said Anne Mullins, THPO director. “This is an amazing space.”

Although Tina Osceola, former THPO officer and director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, couldn’t be at the opening ceremony she sent a statement to Paul Backhouse, current THPO officer, who read it to the crowd.

The Major Billy L. Cypress Building, which houses the THPO department and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum employees, opened in Big Cypress Oct. 23. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“It is because of his [Billy Cypress’] vision that we have this,” Osceola wrote.

“This building represents our sovereignty. Nothing shines brighter than investing in the protection and preservation of our ancestors. This is sovereignty in action.”

Artifacts in the building include a Seminole flag donated at the opening ceremony by Martha Tommie, who brought it with her to North Dakota in 2016.

She, Annette Jones and Theresa Frost traveled north to demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribes from throughout Indian Country.

The Seminole flag flew with other Tribal flags above the massive campground. Tommie told the story of that flag at Standing Rock.

“I believe in these colors and wrapped this flag around me,” she said. “They were coming to tear up the burial grounds, so we faced them down and pushed them back down the hill. I was standing for my grandchildren, my children, my elders. This flag has all my prayers in it for my people. We matter. We may not think that we matter, but we matter. Honor these colors.”

Daniel Tommie, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum traditional interpretation coordinator, unveiled a canoe he carved for the new building. He started carving only two years ago and worked on this one since May.

“Elders and children are our valuable resources and our future,” Tommie said. “Be thankful for our ancestors who gave their lives and sacrificed for us.”

The museum also debuted a sculpture garden with nine life-sized bronze sculptures by Bradley Cooley Sr. and Bradley Cooley Jr. The one-acre site, which is landscaped with native fauna, is on museum property that faces Josie Billie Highway so passersby can get a glimpse of the history of the Tribe cast in bronze.

Andy Buster, Jonah Cypress and President Mitchell Cypress enjoy the opening reception of the Major Billy L. Cypress Building in BC. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

The original set of the statues stand on the grounds of the Museum of Florida History at the R.A. Gray Building in Tallahassee. The second set was cast after 2007 and acquired by the Tribe.

The sculptures represent three different time periods in Seminole history. The first group, titled “American Royalty” is a king, a queen and servant and shows life in 1564 as depicted in a 16th century drawing by artist Jacques le Moyne.

The second set of sculptures, “Seminole Family,” represents the Seminole War era in the 1830s. The third set of three statues is called “Movin’ On” and shows a Miccosukee family in the 1930s.

“This institution represents the blessings given to us by our ancestors and elders,” said Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie. “Thanks for all they’ve done for us.”

After the speeches, attendees toured the building and the sculpture garden.

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