Meet Native America: Colley Billie, Chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Colley Billie. I’m the current chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

My Native name is in Creek, not in Miccosukee. Since I do not speak Creek, I am unable to translate my Native name into English.

Chairman Colley Billie 1

Chairman Colley Billie, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

Where is your tribe located?

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida is located in South Florida, in the heart of the Florida Everglades.

Where are the Miccosukee people originally from?

Before white settlement on Indian lands, most of the mid-southeast region of the United States was Miccosukee territory. This area comprised most of what is today Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky.

What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?

During the Indian removal of the early to mid 1800s, when Indian tribes were being forced to move west into present-day Oklahoma and Kansas, our tribal members sought refuge in the remote Florida Everglades. We went from a dry land environment to subtropical wetland—an area that is mostly water. Although this new land was vastly different from any territory our people had ever encountered, we were able not only to adapt, but also eventually to thrive in this novel environment.

This is a reflection of the versatility and adaptability of the Miccosukee people to thrive in the face of adversity and turn hardship into opportunity.

Today we face another new challenge, and the landscape we must adapt to is of a cultural and ideological nature. Our way of life now is very different than that of our ancestors when they first arrived in the Florida Everglades.

How is your tribal government set up?

The Miccosukee Constitution makes the Miccosukee General Council the governing body of the tribe. The General Council is composed of all adult members,18 years of age or older. The officers of the General Council consist of the chairman, assistant chairman, treasurer, secretary, and lawmaker, with officers elected and seated in November, and serving four-year terms. Aside from the day-to-day business activities of the tribe—including those involving membership, government, law and order, education, welfare, recreation and fiscal disbursement—the core responsibilities of the officers of the General Council include development and management of resources. This group is also known as the Business Council, and its overarching structure is formed by a combination of traditional tribal government and modern management tenets.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Miccosukee families are broken down and identified by affiliation with a clan that is passed down from the mother, as we are a matriarchal society. There is also a traditional hierarchy within the clans. The main clans designated as leaders are the Panther and Wind clans, with the Bird clan playing a pivotal role in providing critical assistance. This system allows effective, egalitarian leadership and support. Hierarchically, within the clan systems, the traditional governing structure is as follows: The medicine leaders, or Bundle Carriers, make executive decisions; supporting clan members carry out and maintain the objectives set forth by the Bundle Carriers.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Our elections are held every four years.

How often does your tribal council meet?

The General Council meets quarterly; the Business Council convenes on a monthly basis.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

When you’re in a position like the one I am in, it is essential to seek traditional knowledge within the tribe, but at the same time to have a strong footing in conventional channels of knowledge. From an early age, I not only participated in traditional training, but also I was encouraged to participate in non-Indian education and attend school. I was never told, or made aware, that this was actually preparing me for the leadership role that I currently hold, but with the knowledge that I gained I can now be a better help for my family and my tribe.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

I am responsible for the welfare of the tribe, from the youngest to the eldest member. I am responsible for providing effective leadership in addition to basic services, including medical care, police protection, etc.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My mentors were my father, Sonny Billie—who served as chairman and was a traditional leader—and my uncles.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

My father, Sonny Billie, held the highest position that can be attained in the tribe’s governmental system, that of Bundle Carrier. My uncle Buffalo Tiger—my mother’s brother—was also the first chairman of the tribe.

Chairman Colley Billie 3a Colley Billie, standing between portraits of his father, Sonny Billie (left), and uncle, Buffalo Tiger, both of whom also served as chairmen of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. The tribe’s flag is at the right.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida consists of 594 members.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Miccosukee Tribe?

You have to be at least half Miccosukee in terms of blood quantum. Although not a strict requirement, the council mandates a clan affiliation, which is passed down through the mother.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

The Miccosukee language is a living language, still spoken by our people today. As far as a percentage, although it is difficult to determine an exact number, I would say 90 to 95 percent of Miccosukee are fluent speakers of the Miccosukee language.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida owns several successful enterprises in South Florida, including the Miccosukee Indian Bingo, Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, Miccosukee Golf & Country Club, Miccosukee Indian Village & Airboat Rides, Miccosukee Tobacco Shop, two service plazas, a restaurant, and a general store.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

In addition to supporting local nonprofit organizations, the tribe hosts several annual community events that serve as important cultural and pedagogical venues, including the annual Miccosukee Tribe Celebrates American Indian Day—held on the fourth Friday of September—to celebrate Native American heritage and tradition. Another annual event that is very important to us is the Miccosukee Indian Arts & Crafts Festival—held in December—a unique commemoration of the common links that thread Native American people with the non-Indian world, featuring traditional musical and dance performances, authentic arts and crafts, and Native American storytelling.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

At Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, guests can enjoy a world-class gaming experience—featuring over 1,900 gaming machines, and high stakes poker and bingo—as well as state-of-the-art resort accommodations. The Miccosukee Indian Village offers visitors the opportunity to explore Miccosukee culture and history, see Native arts and crafts such as traditional beadwork and patchwork, and discover the Everglades on an airboat ride. The Miccosukee Golf & Country Club offers golf enthusiasts the best of the Miami golf scene. Visitors can also try Native food at the Miccosukee Restaurant.

How does the Miccosukee Tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

We have always been a nation that has respected other nations as independent entities. As a people, we never really had a line separating “us” from “them”; those lines were drawn up by the non-Indian governmental structure. Even with other tribal nations, we always upheld a mutual respect, considering all as independent, sovereign nations. When the first white settlement approached us to reside within our lands, we extended that same respect to them to operate as a separate group. They could decide what to do with their own people and how to run their affairs, and in turn, we didn’t expect them to be able to dictate how we should treat our people or conduct our dealings. We’ve always believed that the current government known as the United States of America is built on Indian lands. Essentially, this is a country built on top of another country.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?

I believe that our youth represent the next wave of leaders. They’re the ones charged with continuing on with our efforts and struggles. To achieve peaceful coexistence between the Indian and non-Indian worlds, our children need to learn about their own traditions and at the same time learn about the non-Indian culture, society, and government. Finding the delicate balance between these two worlds will be at the crux of the struggles facing future generations of Miccosukee leaders. Therein lie both the challenge and opportunity to build a world together where both cultures can flourish.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to take this opportunity to bring attention to the plight of the Florida Everglades in the hopes of inciting awareness and support for our struggles to help, protect, and defend this unique ecosystem for the next generations.

The Everglades is our mother. Until recently, it has protected and nurtured us. In our time, the delicate balance of the Florida Everglades has been pushed beyond its breaking point, and the Everglades is dying a slow death. We once were able to drink the clean water of the Florida Everglades. We were able to swim in its waters and eat from the land. Mismanaged by governmental agencies over the past 50 years, the water in the Florida Everglades is now heavily polluted. For this reason, crucial elements of our way of life are no longer possible.

The dire situation in the Everglades is a direct reflection of the struggle of the individual tribal member. We were once people who were able to thrive independently within the sanctuary of the Everglades, and our position has always been to be left alone to live as we used to live before Columbus. Our original way of life has been made virtually impossible because the land that we used to depend on is not the same. In a sense, we have been forced to come out into the non-Indian world and learn how to be a part of it and live in it. One of our responsibilities as members of the non-Indian world is to emphasize the quandary of the Florida Everglades to create positive change. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was started around the year 2000. Thirteen years and over a billion dollars later, it has been unsuccessful in doing what it was purported to do—to re-establish the original path of water from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay. For example, the one-mile bridge that was recently constructed on the Tamiami Trail for the purpose of restoring sheet flow to Florida Bay has not done so. Yet there is a two-mile flyover bridge planned for the same purpose.

Historically, the problem with the restoration of the Everglades has been fragmented efforts with no solid, unifying direction. Projects have been based on the perspectives of people versus what is actually required for the Everglades to survive.

For the Miccosukee people, true restoration is to allow water to flow uninterrupted from Lake Okeechobee and wash out into Florida Bay. And that water must be clean. Only when the polluted water is cleaned can the Florida Everglades and its wildlife begin to recover.

I’d like to conclude by saying Shonaabeshaa (shoh-naah-beh-shaah), which in the Miccosukee language means thank you.

Thank you. 

The photographs above are courtesy of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. Used with permission.