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Tribe mourns passing of President Holt

HOLLYWOOD — Hundreds of Seminole Tribe of Florida tribal members and others filled the First Seminole Baptist Church in Hollywood on June 12 to pay their respects to President James Holt II. He was remembered for the love he had for his family and the tribe, and as a hard-working man who became a well-known alligator wrestler and sought elected office for many years.

President James Holt II

Holt, 44, died June 8, just three days after being sworn in at inauguration day ceremonies. Holt took the oath and embarked on what would have been a four-year term. The position also entails serving as vice-chairman of Tribal Council.

The inauguration marked a triumphant moment for Holt, who first sought elected office in 2014. He lost races along the way but – as speakers pointed out – his determination to serve the tribe as an elected official never waned. His efforts paid off May 8 – election day – when he received 310 votes and won the seat for president.

“He never gave up,” Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola said at the service. “I think he touched all of us. He was a good man.”

Hollywood Board Rep. Christine McCall told the audience that Holt was looking forward to his leadership role.

“He was so happy to represent his people,” Rep. McCall said.

“He was excited to see what he could do,” Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie said.

In fact, while campaigning this year, Holt strengthened his skills to be an elected leader as he earned a certificate in leadership, power and authority from Nova Southeastern University’s department of conflict resolution studies.

The funeral service started at 10 a.m., which was ironically the same time Holt and the rest of the council had been scheduled to meet for its first business briefing of the new term in the auditorium at tribal headquarters. The meeting, and all tribal events for the day, were canceled or postponed.

An overflow crowd attended the 90-minute service. With seating inside the church occupied, some attendees sat outside in rows of chairs under a white tent and watched on two large TV screens while others stood nearby in shade under draping trees. The church is located across Stirling Road from the Council Oak Tree, where Holt and the other elected officials were sworn in just one week earlier.

Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. and Brighton Councilman Larry Howard also spoke at the funeral.


In a tribalwide letter sent via email June 9, Chairman Osceola wrote that Holt would “…continue to inspire us in our endeavors…”

“James’ life was a testament to his unwavering dedication to the tribe, his willingness to serve, and his indomitable spirit in overcoming challenges,” he wrote. “His contributions went well beyond his unique capabilities as an alligator wrestler, which had earned him recognition both nationally and internationally. He devoted himself to the betterment of the Seminole Tribe and the wellbeing of its members.

“His humble attitude, kindness, and guidance will be greatly missed by all who had the honor of knowing him. As we mourn this tremendous loss, we must remember that James’ legacy and the impact he had on the hearts and lives of those around him shall never be forgotten.”

Pastors Paul Buster and Josh LeadingFox led the service. With a guitar in hand, Buster sang a gentle song titled “Alligator Man,” an homage to Holt’s longtime work as an alligator wrestler.

“He was a big boy. I’ve seen him throw gators around,” Councilman Osceola said.

A dozen years ago, Holt and his brother, Clinton, founded the Freestyle Alligator Wrestling Competition (FAWC). They are also featured in the 2020 alligator wrestling documentary “Halpate,” which garnered coverage in the New Yorker magazine.

Often tangling with alligators in front of non-Native audiences, Holt used the opportunity not only as a form of entertainment and entrepreneurship, but also education. In a description about FAWC on the organization’s website, Holt noted how the events provide an opportunity to tell part of the historic aspect of Seminoles survival and how they captured alligators and brought them back to their camps as a source of food during their wars against the U.S. government.

Church, family, cattle

LeadingFox, who has been pastor of the Immokalee First Seminole Baptist Church for the past 12 years, said he had a special friendship with Holt because they grew up in the same town – Pawnee, Oklahoma – and played the same sports for the local high school – football and wrestling.

LeadingFox talked about the importance of church, family and cattle in Holt’s life. He emphasized Holt’s dedication to his family and tribe, noting that he worked several years in his grandfather Jack Henry Motlow’s cattle business on the Big Cypress Reservation.

Working in family cattle and under the tutelage of his uncle David “Bob” Motlow helped Holt learn the importance of hard work, LeadingFox said.

Cattle wasn’t the only area that Holt learned from his elders. More than 50 years ago, Jack Motlow established the Trail Indian Independent Baptist Church. He and “Gramma Mary Motlow” were among the church members who brought Sunday services, meals and fellowship to Seminole and Miccosukee tribal members who lived along Tamami Trail, LeadingFox said. In 2006, Holt was ordained as a deacon at the church. In the same year, he was hired as youth development coordinator for the tribe’s newly-chartered Boys & Girls Clubs.

“He was a humble Seminole man who worked hard all his life,” LeadingFox said. “From working cattle alongside his grandfather, Rev. Jack Henry Motlow, as a young child, to getting sworn in as president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc. as a man of his people. He inspired us to be the best version of ourselves as a tribe.”

The Poore family said they are working on establishing a leadership scholarship in memory of President James Lester Holt II and working with the superintendent of the Pawnee High School. His friends of 30 years, including Oklahoma State Rep. Ty Burns (House District 35), attended the service. Burns said he would like to name a bridge or highway in his memory.

Holt leaves behind his parents Leoma and Dana Poore of the Big Cypress Reservation and a brother Clinton Holt of the Hollywood Reservation, and his sons: Dana James Holt of Hollywood Reservation and Ty Holt of Labelle, and daughters: Mackenzie Holt, Alyssa and Stephanie and his partner and family for 16 years Sylvia Baker of her daughters and sons and grand babies and many cousins, nephews, nieces and friends.

Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is senior editor. He has worked for The Seminole Tribune since 2014. He was previously an editor, photographer and reporter for newspapers in Southwest Florida and Connecticut. Contact Kevin at