By Gale E. Wire
Camp E Nini Hassee staff
CITRUS COUNTY — A good time was had by all May 27 when Tatiana Torres, of the Brighton Reservation, and Caniah Billie, of the Immokalee Reservation, held a Seminole Tribe experience day for the students at Eckerd Connects’ Camp E Nini Hassee, a girls outdoor therapeutic school they attend in Citrus County, about an hour drive north of Tampa.
All the girls at the school have to conduct research and create a project or presentation. A few months ago, Torres started doing research on the Seminole Wars. She asked the education staff if she could present it to the student body. The conversation evolved and Torres became excited about the idea of teaching the students about Seminole culture and history.
During a phone call, she consulted with her grandmother, Oneva Osceola, and laid out a plan for the day with the staff. She wanted to teach the students about beading, dancing and cooking traditions and provide a background history on the Seminole Tribe. She enlisted the help of Billie. The two 16-year-olds met several times with staff and practiced what their day would look like. Billie’s father, Pedro Aguilar Jr., provided a great deal of encouragement to his daughter, who is shy when it comes to public speaking. The girls made flyers for the student groups and staff the day before. On the day of the event, both girls wore Seminole modern clothing.
Torres started the day with her presentation on the history of the Seminole name and the three Seminole Wars. She fielded many questions from the student body with wisdom and poise. She consulted maps and showed the girls the routes of the cimarrons, or runaways, to the south and the Trail of Tears to the west. She spoke about Andrew Jackson as a general and as a president of the United States and his impact on the Native Americans of the southern region. She discussed the defiance and strength of both Osceola and Billy Bowlegs as they led the Seminoles through difficult times. In the end, she clarified with everyone that “One Tribe Undefeated” has everything to do with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and is simply borrowed by Florida State University.
Several months ago Billie inspired many students to read Patrick Smith’s book “A Land Remembered.” In fact, an entire reading class chose this book for their lessons and created a book club based on the recommendation of Billie. So when she took the stage after Torres, Billie reinforced the message of the hardship and struggle the Indigenous people of Florida had when they were being forced to leave their land because white settlers wanted more.
She made connections with many girls in the audience as they made reference to their readings of “A Land Remembered.” Billie then adapted a presentation previously put together by her sister, Cartaya Billie. She spoke about the background of the 1970s and the landmark cases that brought tribal sovereignty to the Native American reservation land. She discussed the wisdom of her Seminole forefathers/mothers when they sought to rise out of poverty and instituted a high stakes bingo hall on the Hollywood Reservation in 1979 and then won the Supreme Court Case of The Seminole Tribe vs. Butterworth (1981) that paved the way for the Seminole Tribe to invest more in gaming and maximize its enterprise, including the acquisition of Hard Rock International, known for its casinos, hotels and the legendary Hard Rock Cafés.
Billie shared her experiences of Hard Rock being a family event place that holds good memories and fun times for her. With ease and organization, she described the benefits of the money earned and distributed from Hard Rock by discussing and showing pictures of the Seminole Tribe’s Health and Human Services department, new cars for the Tribe’s police department, the Tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress, Seminole schools on the reservations and their teachings of ‘the old ways,’ and the recognition by Florida schools that Creek is a language that fulfills the two-year language requirement.
The students watched the short video “I am Seminole” by Everett Osceola. After telling the students about the Council Oak, the Princess Pageant, the Clans and Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, Torres handed out the “Legend of The Corn Lady” and asked the staff to read the legend when the students went to sleep that night. Then Torres and Billie began to talk about Corn Dance traditions. Enthusiastically, Billie piqued the interest of many students as she described the game of stickball through photographs. Both girls also showed pictures of Chickee huts and related them to the tents the students currently live in while at Camp E Nini Hassee. Then the student body rotated through three stations.
Over an open fire pit, Torres taught the girls how to make fry bread, which was offered at lunch and also included Indian burgers. Billie tied cans with stones in them as shakers to the ankles of the girls and taught them dance stepping and answered questions about her Clan and blood percentage. An E Nini Hassee staff member helped the girls organize and make a traditional Seminole pattern glass bead bracelet they could keep and wear after watching a short clip on the Seminole styles.
Students and staff were interested to learn the history of the Seminoles and the traditions of Corn Dance. The only thing missing from Torres’s original plan was the Spam she planned to offer as a snack, but it was on back order due to Covid-19. Afterward the students began to call it the first annual Corn Dance as clearly Torres and Billie outdid themselves. They both started out so nervous and fretted for days about pulling off the event day, but by the end of the day their cheeks hurt from smiling so much as they beamed with pride.