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Chairman Colley Billie: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Chairman Colley Billie.

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 peoples today.

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.

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?

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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.

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.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.