Willie Johns had a lot of passions in his life, and many are intertwined in the titles and affiliations he held over the years.
The lifetime resident of the Brighton Reservation and member of the Wild Cat Clan was not only a Tribal Court Chief Justice, but also a member of the First Seminole Baptist Church and the Florida Historical Society. The longtime cattleman was a former commissioner of the Indian National Finals Rodeo. He was also a well versed and committed tribal historian and
Born March 23, 1951, Johns died Oct. 27 in Brighton from complications of diabetes. He was 69.
Tributes quickly poured in from tribal leadership and members, as well as many from outside the tribe. Someone who was close to Johns since childhood is Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster, his younger sister.
“We were three years apart in age. He and I were close. Pretty tight,” Buster said.
Buster recently reminisced about growing up with Johns and many other young relatives.
“We lived in a camp – we were still in the camp setting at that time. We swam and played and worked and did everything together,” she said.
Buster said Johns contracted polio at age 3, and was sent to a special hospital until he was 6.
“He had the brace on his knees and all that. They had taken a muscle from above his knee. He wore a brace for a lot of years,” Buster said. “But our family never slowed down for him, never gave him any pity. He had to stay up with everybody. It made him the person he was.”
That spirit of toughness would give Johns a drive and purpose for the rest of his life, Buster said.
“He was always involved in something,” she said.
Pursuit of history
Johns was intimately involved in the history of St. Augustine and its connection to the Seminole Tribe.
One of his last projects was tracing the life of Coacoochee, also known as Wild Cat.
The leader, warrior and diplomat, led the Seminole resistance against the U.S. Army in Florida during the latter stages of the Second Seminole War. He gained prominence when he was just 19-years-old as the leader of a band of Seminole and Black Seminole, until his father was captured in 1837 and imprisoned at Fort Marion (the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine).
Johns told the Seminole Tribune in late February that he was proud of a copy of the painting “The Captive Osceola” by Florida artist Jackson Walker that hung in his home.
It shows Wild Cat, Osceola and others being marched in to the Fort Marion prison. They’d famously escape, although how they did is up for debate.
Johns has said historians don’t really know. But from his research and work with the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum he had three trains of thought.
Johns said they either crawled through an opening in the cell after losing enough weight by fasting; they were never held at Fort Marion in the first place; or the cell was accidentally left open and they walked out.
Johns leaned toward the cell was left open scenario.
After his escape, Wild Cat would eventually end up in Oklahoma for a time.
“When I do these [lectures], I always tell them at the end: ‘Every morning I get up, I kiss the ground and thank my ancestors that I didn’t wake up in Oklahoma. That I woke up in paradise,’” Johns said in late February.
It was Wild Cat’s journey that inspired Johns to organize a nine-day road trip that was set to stop at many of the significant locations in Wild Cat’s life from his birth to his death.
The goal was to create a video documentary to better inform Wild Cat’s descendants and the Seminole Tribe of his life. The trip was scheduled to begin in March, but the pandemic hit and derailed those plans.
Buster said her brother first began to become ill in March.
“He had gone out to his cattle and was out in the pasture. The wind came up and a gate knocked him down. It caused a wound on his leg that wouldn’t heal,” she said.
Buster, who is also a nurse, said she was by his side for months.
“I tried to help him, but it wouldn’t heal. We had to go to hospital,” she said.
Ultimately the leg had to be amputated above the knee. Buster said the situation was naturally a tough one for him to endure.
With diabetes and a heart condition, Buster said he was in and out of the hospital four or five times. He also contracted pneumonia and sepsis, which is caused by an infection.
Buster said in a moment of coherency during the last hospital stay, Johns said: “I’m gonna go home. I want to go home.”
“I’ve always been his health surrogate. Whatever he said, I went along with. He respected that of me,” she said.
When Johns arrived at his home, his girlfriend greeted him and said: “You’re happy your home?” Johns replied, “I’m not home yet.”
Buster said that happened on a Sunday. By early Tuesday morning, Johns had passed away.
One of his ongoing projects was a book – a historical fiction he’d been writing for years. It’s largely about the life of his great grandmother who died in 1930 at an age surpassing 100. (Johns didn’t know exactly how old she was when she died).
The book – “What We Have Endured” – was published by the Florida Historical Society the Friday before he passed away.
“That was one of his life goals,” Buster said. “Between writing that book and Seminole history and cattle – he was the only independent cattle owner – those were three things always on the top of the list of things he wanted to accomplish. And he did.”