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Seminole women make history at ‘Inauguration Day’

The Tribal Council and Board of Directors gather in front of the Council Oak Tree after the inauguration ceremony June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. From left are Hollywood Councilman Christopher Osceola, Brighton Councilman Larry Howard, Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie, Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola, Jr., President Mitchell Cypress, Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster, Hollywood Board Rep. Christine McCall and Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

HOLLYWOOD – Hundreds of tribal members and guests gathered under a large tent in front of the historic Council Oak Tree on the grounds of the Hollywood Reservation’s Classic Casino on June 7 to swear in the Seminole Tribe’s newly elected leaders at “Inauguration Day” ceremonies.

The tribe holds elections every two years to install the leadership of its government operations and business enterprises. While familiar faces are still on Tribal Council and on the board of Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc., it was a day to celebrate new faces and Seminole women – three newcomers and one incumbent – who were voted in at the tribe’s May 10 election.

The tribe has never had four women serving in leadership positions at the same time – the most at any one time has been two.

Inauguration Day also marked the tribe’s first sit-down public event in about the past 15 months as the Covid-19 pandemic halted most in-person gatherings and limited the few that were held to drive-thru arrangements. The event was live streamed.

“For the first time in over a year we gather again as a group of people, to show our determination,” Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. said. “We live today in a historic moment. Today demonstrates where the tribe is going by having four women serve at the same time. Women who had the courage to stand up and say ‘I’ll run.’”

From left, Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie, Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster, Hollywood Board Rep. Christine McCall and Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers pose by the Council Oak Tree after taking the inauguration June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

In all, six candidates won positions for two-year terms. Returning are Brighton Councilman Larry Howard, Hollywood Councilman Christopher Osceola and Brighton Board Representative Helene Buster. The three newcomers are Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie, Big Cypress Board Representative Nadine Bowers and Hollywood Board Representative Christine McCall. Chairman Osceola and President Mitchell Cypress are in positions with four-year terms. They were not up for reelection this year.

“For the first time since our federal recognition in 1957, we are installing four Seminole women,” tribal secretary and emcee LaVonne Rose said to loud applause at the beginning of the ceremony. “We are a matrilineal society and it’s about time our leadership reflects that most sacred heartbeat of our community.”

As part of tradition, the tribe’s princesses said a few words to the crowd. It was a particularly special moment for Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie.

“My family is ecstatic today because my sister Mariann is being inducted today as the Big Cypress council representative and I’m very proud of her,” Billie said. “You’ve not only impacted me but all the younger generation of women who are going to be authoritative figures in the tribe as well.”

Councilwoman Billie and Board Representative Bowers are the first females to represent Big Cypress in their respective positions.

From left, Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie, Brighton Councilman Larry Howard and Hollywood Councilman Christopher Osceola take the oath of office June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Miss Florida Seminole, Durante Blais-Billie, invoked the names of influential women like Polly Parker, the Seminole Cattlewomen Association, and “everyday storytellers and knowledge keepers.”

“The power of women exists beyond one role, beyond one expectation and beyond just one moment in time,” Blais-Billie said. “They carry the fight for our continuation of language, culture, being, and for the protection of the ancestors that came before us by protecting the land. Let this inauguration be not just a landmark in our history, let this inauguration be a call to action, a call to uplift Indigenous women across Indian Country.”

Also a tradition, the outgoing leadership expressed thanks to their respective staffs, showed support for their opponents, and called for unity among tribal members.

Outgoing Big Cypress Councilman David Cypress and Big Cypress Board Representative Joe Frank also took the opportunity to encourage tribal members who haven’t received a Covid-19 vaccination to do so.

“There are 2,000 tribal members who are eligible to get vaccinated that haven’t yet,” outgoing Councilman Cypress said. “Would you please really think about getting the vaccine? I don’t know of anyone dying from getting the vaccine, but I do know quite a few people who died from getting Covid.”

From left, Hollywood Board Rep. Christine McCall, Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster and Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers take the oath of office June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Outgoing Hollywood Board Representative Gordon “Ollie” Wareham used his turn at the podium to thank President Cypress.

“You’ve been my role model and for the past four years you’ve been my father figure,” Wareham said.

After a Bureau of Indian Affairs official administered the oath of office, the newly elected leaders each took to the stage. Here’s a sample of what each had to say.

Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie:

“We have shown that women are much more than clan lineage, the matriarchy is about strong Seminole women serving in our government and our businesses. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. I dedicate this to the late Betty Mae Jumper, a woman of true substance who paved the way many, many years ago.”

Big Cypress Board Representative Nadine Bowers:

“We did it. We have many women-owned businesses within our tribe, so it is natural that women should serve on the board of directors. I hope through working together that we can serve as role models for young girls and women who want to pursue a role in a tribal and global business environment.”

Hollywood Board Representative Christine McCall:

“I am proud to stand here representing a new generation of leadership, and I hope it will inspire more young tribal members to get involved.”

Brighton Board Representative Helene Buster:

“It’s been a long time coming. I think the four of us are some very proud, proud women today. Our job is to represent you as our community as our tribe.”

Brighton Councilman Larry Howard:

“We are all one, no matter what. Our ancestors didn’t pave the way for us to fight with one another. They paved the way for us to be stronger than we were before.”

Hollywood Councilman Christopher Osceola:

“Congratulations ladies. It’s a new day for the Seminole Tribe. I really do look forward to seeing what these ladies bring to the table. I have a feeling they’re going to light it up. All these ladies possess all the right tools to do the right things and I look forward to working with them.”

Coleman Josh (American flag) and his mother Salli Josh (Seminole flag) represent the Seminole Color Guard at the start of the Seminole Tribe’s inauguration ceremony June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Council and board members sit on the dias as Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie addresses the crowd during the Seminole Tribe’s inauguration ceremony June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Supporters of Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie raise a poster after her inauguration and speech from the podium June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
The inauguration crowd applauds tribal leadership after the speeches June 7, 2021. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
The newly elected female leaders share a moment before being inaugurated June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. From left are Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie, Hollywood Board Rep. Christine McCall and Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie and Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie show sisterly love after the inauguration June 7, 2021, in Hollywood. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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