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To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne open house provides welcomed gathering for community

Musician Eden Jumper performs on the Rez Jamz stage at the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center open house March 9, 2022, in Big Cypress. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

BIG CYPRESS – In Eloponke, “To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne” means a place to gather – and that’s just what the Big Cypress community did during a festive open house event March 9 that featured vendors, music and food.

The To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center in Big Cypress made its debut in May 2019, but was only open for 10 months before the pandemic struck.

The Seminole Tribe’s shift into phase three of reopening, which started Feb. 28, allowed a return to facilities and for tribal members to gather in-person.

The open house was organized by Quenton Cypress, the Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) community engagement manager. His goal was to have the tribal community meet  HERO staff and learn about programs and initiatives at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and the Environmental Resources Management Department (ERMD). Each department staffed informational tables at the event.  

Fifteen vendors also sold clothing, arts and crafts, jewelry and food. The crowd was so large that some food vendors sold out.

At left, Barbara Billie helps tribal members look through some of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s old photos in order to identify people in them, as Edna McDuffie and Councilwoman Mariann Billie discuss some of the pictures at the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center open house March 9, 2022, in Big Cypress. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“The open house was more than we could have imagined,” Cypress said. “It was a great turnout.”

“The community is ready to be a community again,” said Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie. “The pandemic is still here with us, like a lot of other viruses. But they are ready to mingle and socialize. Without the people, we wouldn’t be a community or a tribe. We can’t be who we are if we are cooped up at home.”

The vendors were a welcomed sight for those who wanted to shop.

“It’s nice to get out,” said Esther Gopher, who shopped with her daughter Kristen Billie and 11-month-old granddaughter Daenerys Billie. “I haven’t seen some of these people in years, it feels good. We still wear our masks because we still have a baby.”

Rez Jamz, the center’s musical showcase for tribal member musicians, set up a backdrop and sound system outside. Featured artists included Eden Jumper and Cypress Billie.

“It’s good to see everybody and the vendors,” Councilwoman Billie said. “We all like socializing and the energy that comes with it. We want to create an environment where people feel welcome.”

From left, Randee Osceola, Geraldine Osceola and Sydnee Cypress shop together at the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center open house March 9, 2022, in Big Cypress. (Photo Kevin Johnson)
Quenton Cypress, left, HERO community engagement manager, talks to Mya Cypress at the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center open house March 9, 2022, in Big Cypress. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Cypress Billie plays some of his original songs on the Rez Jamz stage at the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center open house March 9, 2022, in Big Cypress. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Esther Gopher and her daughter Kristen Billie shop for some child-sized patchwork pieces at the open house March 9, 2022. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Surrounded by their colorful inventory, vendors await customers at the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center open house March 9, 2022, in Big Cypress. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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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 beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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