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Tribe celebrates 65th anniversary of government formation

Brian Zepeda, dressed in traditional clothing holding an antique rifle, served as emcee of the anniversary celebration Aug. 25. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

HOLLYWOOD — The Seminoles who met under the Council Oak Tree on the Hollywood Reservation to create a new tribal government on Aug. 21, 1957, weren’t far removed from the generations who survived in the swamps of the Everglades day by day with little to no modern day resources or money. They met with the hope that fortunes could change and that the tribe would one day be financially independent enough to offer health care and education to its members and to secure its rights to land, water and other natural resources.

It was 65 years ago that a Seminole constitution was forged creating a two-tiered system of government with a tribal council and a board of directors. It was also in 1957 that the U.S. Congress would officially recognize the unconquered Seminole Tribe of Florida. The government formation and the federal recognition laid the groundwork for what would be an increasingly influential and financially formidable tribe.

The tribe took note of its history, the sacrifices of its ancestors, and the foresight of the leaders who met under the Council Oak Tree at a 65th anniversary event Aug. 25 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. An opening video presentation produced by Seminole Media Productions and narrated by Cheyenne Kippenberger featured several Seminole elders who reminisced about how different life was in those early years.

“Life was kind of more simple. If you wanted something to eat you’d go out there and hunt – there was no Publix or Walmart,” President Mitchell Cypress said.

The video featured former Chairman James E. Billie, Wanda Bowers, Paul Buster, Tribal Court Associate Justice Joe Frank, Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry, Tampa culture language director Herbert Jim, Scarlett Jumper, Tribal Court Associate Justice Moses “Bigg Shot” Jumper Jr., Joe Osceola Jr., Tribal Council’s general counsel Jim Shore and others.

They recalled wearing old, worn out clothes to school, the constant worry about money, living in camps, using kerosene lamps for light and cooking food by fire under a chickee.

“We lived in a one-bedroom, one kitchen, one living room wooden house,” Bowers said of her family.

Even through the struggles there were positives. The elders said tribal members enjoyed a greater connection to nature, and families were bonded tightly.

“We were rich in family, culture and history, but poor in cash,” Joe Osceola Jr. said.

‘More opportunities today’

The journey toward financial independence began in 1957 but wouldn’t start to be realized until 1979, when the tribe became pioneers of Indian gaming by opening the country’s first large stakes bingo hall – now the Seminole Classic Casino in Hollywood. Bingo became the biggest source of income for the tribe and would begin a through line to eventually buying the Hard Rock empire in 2007. In the ensuring years Hard Rock and Seminole Gaming would see enormous growth.

“I see many more great opportunities today than what we had back then – the kids can go to college and be whatever they want to be,” President Cypress said at the anniversary event.

Buster grew up in a camp on the Big Cypress Reservation and later became a language teacher, musician and pastor.

“The Seminole people have been strong and courageous,” he said before giving the invocation. “We’re looking to another 65 years of prosperity. That oak tree has branched out and made shade for the Seminole people that we could be prosperous throughout all the struggles that we came through.”

Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. asked tribal members sitting at tables in the ballroom to think of an early memory they had about what it was like to “simply live and survive.”

“Look at us today. All those sacrifices, the blood, sweat and tears from our ancestors,” he said. “We have this day to rejoice and give thanks for what they’ve done. I live the dream because I get to wake up every morning blessed to be alive, to have family, culture and people that love you. Don’t forget we’re all in this together, no matter what, no matter where, no matter how – we’ve always made it through and our ancestors have taught us very well.”

Chairman Osceola noted that at one time in the tribe’s history there were only 300 unconquered Seminoles. Today there are 4,351 tribal members.

“No one ever dreamed that there would be a [Guitar Hotel] standing on this property that we used to call home, where we used to forage,” he said.

‘It didn’t just happen’

One of Brighton Councilman Larry Howard’s early memories is when his family stayed in chickees and would get drinking water from a pond in Fort Pierce so it could be heated to cook and drink with. He recalled his uncles making the long trek between Fort Pierce and Brighton on foot.

“Without our ancestors we wouldn’t be sitting in this building today,” he said. “The past leaders of this tribe did a lot of good things for us.”

Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola recognized former Chairman Billie, who was at the event. He also recognized longtime former Hollywood Councilman Max Osceola Jr., who died in 2020, and the tribe’s first president, Joe Dan Osceola, who died in 2019.

“We’ve come a long way. We’ve been blessed. It didn’t just happen,” he said. “There were a lot of leaders that paved the way for us, that fought the fights and made a sacrifice. There’s always people that don’t get recognized, too – those are the families.”

Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster said that while the tribe’s financial independence is important, it’s family, friends and community that are most important to her.

“Our ancestors heard that we were on the list to be terminated and they said ‘no, not us – we’ll fight to do what we need to do to remain a tribe and not be terminated,’” she said. “We became an entity that has become a force, not only in the state of Florida, but in the whole country. We’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Rep. Buster, Big Cypress Councilwoman Marianne Billie, Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers and Hollywood Board Rep. Christine McCall made history in 2021 when they were elected in a new wave of women leaders with positions on Tribal Council and on the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc. Board.

“Our elders knew that nation-to-nation partnerships were essential in asserting our sovereignty,” Councilwoman Billie said. “We have shown that we are astute leaders not only in the global business environment, but also in securing our inherent rights.”

One of the youngest members of Seminole government is Rep. McCall, who is 35-years-old. She said she’d done some research on tribal history to prepare remarks for the anniversary event.

“Our very first chairman had a dream,” she said. “He knew that we would have to learn the white way for us to be able to survive, but also to honor our traditions so that we never forgot where we came from. Our ancestors dreamed that one day our people would be educated and running our tribe and making smart decisions.”

The Seminole Color Guard, with Curtis Motlow in front, marches to the front of the ballroom to present the colors as Hollywood Rep. Christine McCall and her daughter watch the procession. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. welcomes tribal members to the tribe’s 65th anniversary celebration at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood on Aug. 25. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
From left, Rita Gopher, Reina Micco, Ila Trueblood and Carla Gopher, from First Indian Baptist Church of Brighton, sing at the anniversary celebration. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Paul Buster sings original songs with the Cowbone Band. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
President Mitchell Cypress addresses the crowd in Elaponke and English. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola and Hollywood Board Rep. Christine McCall gather for a photo after delivering speeches at the 65th anniversary event. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Brighton Councilman Larry Howard addresses the audience at the anniversary event. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Members of the Big Cypress First Baptist Church sing at the anniversary celebration. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Ahfachkee School students recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Elaponke. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Esther Gopher and her granddaughter Daenerys Beverly Bidney Billie enjoy the festivities. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Cyiah Avila wears the traditional hairstyle at the anniversary celebration. She taught herself to create the style by watching videos and said it took 30 minutes to complete. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Jennifer Osceola with her granddaughter Juliana Rodriguez and son Manny Estrada at one of the many tribal vendor booths at the anniversary event. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Students from Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School recite the Pledge of Allegiance on stage in Creek. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
BIg Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie speaks to the audience at the celebration. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Former Chairman James E. Billie and Wanda Bowers were glad to see one another at the anniversary festivities. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Jonah Cypress sings and plays guitar as the other members of the Big Cypress First Baptist Church choir are projected on the screen behind him. (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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