Maj. Billy L. Cypress, new building’s namesake, lovingly remembered

(Immokalee Bulletin/Chris Felker) Potential bidders examine the handcrafted items offered for the tribe’s silent auction

BIG CYPRESS RESERVATION — The Seminole Tribe of Florida celebrated another milestone in its quest to define its Native American tribal identity Oct. 23 with the dedication of the Major Billy L. Cypress Building.

A large crowd gathered under tents erected in the imposing two-story edifice’s front parking lot for its christening during a reverent ceremony Wednesday afternoon. Huge fans were set up to keep observers cool, and chilled water was handed out freely. The new building is adjacent to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum in the center of the Seminole reservation. Master of Ceremonies Quenton Cypress, community engagement manager for the tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO), introduced the many speakers.

Prominent among them were Valerie Hauser, director of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; members of the Tribal Council including Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., chairman, and Mitchell Cypress, vice chairman; Board of Representatives members and former Big Cypress councilmen; Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie; Andrew J. Bowers, executive director of operations; Dr. Paul Backhouse, senior director of HERO and the tribal historic preservation officer; Anne Mullins, director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office; former tribe chairman James E. Billie; Martha Tommie, who gave a historic Seminole flag to the museum; and Daniel Tommie, who presented a dugout canoe he created especially for this building during his closing remarks.

The building cost the tribe about $5 million to build and contains a secure and fire-rated Collection Storage Room/Vault on the ground floor. Next door are a laboratory and a photography space for handling artifacts and exhibits. On the second floor is an extensive Records Storage Room for maintaining historic tribal records. Both of those spaces, one atop the other, have precise environmental control systems to maintain specific temperatures and humidity levels necessary for preservation of stored items. The rest of the 10,000-square-foot building is divided into a few offices, sun-lighted open work areas with employee stations, break rooms, collaboration spaces, a conference room and restrooms.

Carol Cypress gave remarks, later joining a trio of Seminole ladies and one male elder, who sang a couple of prayers in Seminole.

Quenton Cypress then introduced Ms. Hauser. “She traveled all the way from Washington, D.C., is someone that we’ve worked with very closely in the (Tribal) Heritage Preservation Office (the THPO) and has been a big help to the Seminole Tribe of Florida in sovereignty over your own history and culture on and off the reservation.” She directs the federal Office of Native American Affairs as well, and said with much respect:

“On this very special day, I thank the tribe for welcoming me to your home and the home of your ancestors. I knew Billy, and I know that he would be very proud of what the tribe and the THPO have accomplished so far for the opening of this exquisite building.

“This is one of 194 Indian tribes in the United States that has a THPO, but I can tell you that in my 20 years of working in Native affairs, this tribe is a leader. I know what tribal preservation looks like throughout the U.S. This tribe is a leader because of the commitment of the tribe and the tribal council but also the hard work and dedication of this staff.” Ms. Hauser asked them to stand or raise their hands so they could be recognized, and the crowd duly applauded.

“What tribal preservation is, it’s not just archaeology; it’s not just artifact curation; it’s not just museum work. It’s very much at the heart of tribal sovereignty. Tribal preservation is in crisis … but I can tell you that this tribe is leading the nation on how to do it well. So I want to say that you inspire us all. Be proud of what you do. Know that beyond the tribe there are many of us counting on you, and good luck with your new and beautiful home!”

The following speakers, all contemporaries of Maj. Cypress, “told stories about what Billy did, what Billy gave — but most importantly, he gave himself to this tribe,” as Chairman Marcellus Osceola put it. “We have a lot to be thankful for with Billy stepping forward the way he did. His legacy lives on because we’re still telling his story today to our children and grandchildren.”

One of the highlights of the ceremony featured Hollywood board representative Gordon “Ollie” Wareham’s remarks and musical talent:

“He’d only talked about his service once to me, and it wasn’t what he did overseas. It was when he got back. He said when he got back, they brought him here … and when he got to Big Cypress, it was the first time he ever felt like he was home.” Mr. Wareham choked up a little and went on:

“So this place meant something to him. A couple of years ago I was asked to create a song for him, so I came up with a song called Everglades Warrior, and I just pictured Billy coming home. Because this was his home. And him hearing the sounds of Big Cypress…”

The melody was hauntingly beautiful and warmly appreciated by the celebrants.

Chris can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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