Henry John Billie
1998 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Henry John Billie (1927-2004) was one of only a handful of Seminoles who made and used the dugout canoe in recent times. Billie was an elder of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, born near the tiny fishing village of Chokoloskee on the southwest coast in 1927. He grew up in this isolated area where, about once a month, some Clan members made a day-long canoe trip to Smallwood’s Trading Post at Chokoloskee Bay to trade alligator and animal skins for staples such as flour, salt, and lard. Billie lived his entire life in south Florida among his people, first in the southwest, then on the Hollywood Reservation, and finally on the Big Cypress Reservation.
Billie belonged to the Wind Clan, recognized as one of the founding clans, which is responsible for keeping and transmitting core rituals and traditions. Raised by his mother’s parents, he spent his formative years helping his grandfather and uncles choose, cut, and shape giant cypress logs into dugout canoes used for hunting and family transport. He learned to choose the tree, fell and clean it, work it into rough shape before the rains set in, then float the log back to camp after the rains for finishing. He learned to make individual canoes used for hunting trips into the Everglades as well as the large canoes used by entire families to visit trading posting and transport supplies. Although in adulthood he found work building roads across the Everglades, he long continued to use the dugout for transportation through the Everglades and Big Cypress.
In later years Billie immersed himself in canoe building and traditional Seminole lifeways. He had a quiet and humble way of transmitting critical information and using his prodigious skills. He was a craftsman whose understanding of his craft and the traditions surrounding it were acquired from his grandfathers, using information that they acquired from their grandfathers. His skills, however, were based upon a natural talent for understanding wood and for surviving successfully within the unique and demanding environment of the Florida Everglades. He was also a natural teacher whose patience and good humor contributed to his reputation and respect. Billie served as a master artist in the Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program in 1998, and passed along the art of making dugout canoes to Charles Hiers Billie. He received the 1998 Florida Folk Heritage Award.