Bobby C. Billie was born in the Everglades, about a mile off of Tamiami Trail, in 1945. For years, that was all he knew of the world. Children planted pumpkins and corn, hunted deer or raccoons, and stuck their feet into alligator holes to see if turtles were hiding inside. No limbs were lost. Life was good.
One day, when Billie was about 5 years old, he remembers, the kids went "further and further and ran onto [the highway]. Chain gangs were cleaning up the side of the road. We looked at them – white and brown and black doing it – we didn't even know what we run into!"
Scared, the kids hid in a bush until their parents came home. "We said, 'We had no idea what that was!' They told us, 'OK, get in the car.' They took us to Miami, and we found out we are not the only ones living here."
That's how Billie, now age 71, learned there was
Billie has dedicated his life to standing up for environmental and indigenous causes. On March 20, he — along with other environmentalists and Miccosukee tribe members — will host a six-day, 80-mile "Walk for Future Generations" across the state. Along the way, nightly fireside chats with him offer a rare, intimate glimpse into a deeply private community.
Wearing a traditional patchwork shirt, with his shoulder-length gray hair swept back, he settles onto a bench in a park in Central Florida's Lake Placid to tell his story. His ancestors, he explains, taught him to revere seeds and plants and natural cycles; even ashes had a purpose.
But Tamiami Trail was built in the 1920s, effectively damming the flow of water in the River of Grass from north to south. Everglades National Park was established in 1949 and Big Cypress National Preserve in 1974.
The park service prohibited fires and instituted rules that ruined his people's way of farming. He vowed: "I'm not going to forgive you. I'm going to be challenging you as long as I'm on Earth."
Drunk hunters would shoot and endanger them, Billie says. So families came out of the deep swamp and moved to villages along the Trail. Job options were limited because they hadn't learned to speak English. His people had always honored an oral tradition. "In my time," Billie remembers, "they said even if I hold a pencil, they take my hand and slap it away." Billie never learned to read or write. He says English can never capture the true meaning of his language,
Around age 14, Billie got a job planting tomatoes with his grandparents for 50 cents a day. "We just, like, survived at that time, because we had to change our entire way of life," he says.
In the mid-1900s, the U.S. government encouraged indigenous people to organize and develop constitutions. According to author (and onetime running mate of Ralph Nader) Winona LaDuke, some of South Florida's indigenous people in 1957 opted to form the Seminole Tribe and become federally recognized. "Each person who signed up got 25 bucks and became eligible for various federal benefits."
Another group formed the Miccosukee Tribe separately in 1962.
Billie, however, found absurd the concept of needing to be recognized. "The seed
"I remember the political changes well," says Billie. There were "big meetings and big people from Washington there." He says his people were misled. "They thought they were securing their rights to live as they always had. My uncle started to go to night school. He started reading." He warned the elders that by signing the papers, they would give up their rights to the land. The Seminoles ended up with six reservation areas in Florida. The Miccosukees got several parcels and a lease to use 189,000 acres of the Everglades.
According to a State of Florida website, in 1970, the Indian Claims Commission awarded the Seminoles "(of both Oklahoma and Florida, collectively) $12,347,500 for the land taken from them by the U.S. military."
Billie remembers the day. "Lake Okeechobee was making a noise – a loud noise." A nephew asked, "Did you hear that?" They asked around, but no white people had heard it. An elder explained, "It's just letting you know something is going to happen." Then they saw in the newspaper that the settlement deal had been reached.
In the years that followed, tribes modernized. Kids went to school. Christian churches arose on reservations. The Seminoles led a nationwide effort to build bingo halls and casinos on Indian land. Miccosukees followed. The tribes became economic powerhouses. Nearly all natives enrolled in tribes. Enrolled members receive dividends from casino profits, reportedly as much as $10,000 a month.
Still, Billie resisted, maintaining instead that a treaty signed by President James Polk in the 1800s remains in effect and grants natives the rights to all of Southwest Florida and beyond. "All of the people on the reservation want to be white," he says. To some, "it's more important — the dollar, the nice car, nice house, restaurants — than God's gift."
Years went by. Billie did odd jobs, married, had children, and divorced. (In a child support case, Billie testified in court, "We don't recognize the United States.")
"I'm a private person," he says. But "one day the message came... You are going to need to speak. The people are destroying nature."
Across the Atlantic Ocean lived Shannon Larsen, an environmentalist from Florida who had married and moved to Norway. There, Larsen, now age 71, remembers, "Something kept saying, 'Help! Help! Help!' " She felt called
Billie, the spiritual leader, first sent her away but then called her back. That was 1990. Since then, the two have worked together on environmental and Indian cultural issues. She helps him track legislation and draft responses. They have spoken out at park service meetings and legislative hearings. They have fought historians,
With Larsen transcribing, Billie has composed multipage – and rather poetic – letters to everyone from Barack Obama to Queen Elizabeth. When Florida in 2011 sought to commemorate the "discovery" of America, he dashed off a correction: European settlers "tortured and slaughtered our People — young or old, the women or the men, children or babies. They died for us... Columbus, Ponce de Leon, Pedro Menendez, Desoto, and the others should not be commemorated or celebrated. They were nothing more than cold-blooded, savage killers."
This year, in fighting a bill that would allow amateur collectors to keep artifacts, he wrote, "We tell you: Do not disturb the Spirits of the Water."
Last month, his priority was objecting to the Sabal Trail gas pipeline, proposed to run through 12 Florida counties. The prophecy has told him that part of Florida is going to break off and sink. He predicts an explosion along the gas line.
He says he feels alone in his struggle, but his niece Betty Osceola says there are "hundreds" who have foregone tribal membership. (She joined the Miccosukee Tribe in her 20s and now runs Buffalo Tiger airboats concession.) Sometimes agencies dismiss his opinion because his group is not federally recognized. It's politically tricky, he says: "If they recognize me, the Seminole Tribe and Miccosukee tribes have no standing."
These days, Billie says, he still leads ceremonies and comforts the sick. He has been asked to speak in other countries but refuses to get a passport. "He won't come under American domination," Larsen explains.
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Osceola respects her uncle's position. "Some of our people don't feel they need to have a piece of paper to declare that they're an indigenous person," she says. "We have our way of life that the creator gave to us."
Osceola says the Walk for Future Generations will begin with camp setup and registration on March 18 at Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee. Then starting March 20, walkers will proceed along Tamiami Trail. The walk is
The public is welcome to join. Find the Walk for Future Generations page on Facebook for details.
Billie is hopeful the younger generation will heed his call to protect nature. "I want them to know they can do better... As long as I'm on the Earth, I'm going to be reminding them."