2019 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Born of the Bird Clan in a chickee in Dania, Seminole leader James Billie rose from humble beginnings to serve and elevate his people. After two tours in the Army during the Vietnam War, he returned to Florida where he was elected Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 1979. During his tenure as Chairman (1979-2001, 2011-2016), he strengthened the educational system and led progressive efforts to make the Tribe economically self-sufficient through successful business investments, hotels and gaming that drew national attention. In addition to championing tribal sovereignty, he promoted the preservation of Seminole traditional culture and language by funding several cultural enrichment initiatives including The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, built on the site of his own Big Cypress camp. He is credited with creating a broadcasting department and modernizing The Seminole Tribune newspaper, charging both to focus on tribal culture, document the lives and memories of elders and build pride in tribal youth. Aware of the role of outreach in building cross-cultural understanding, Chief Billie worked with the State of Florida to preserve significant archaeological sites and support valuable educational opportunities like the Seminole Camp at the Florida Folk Festival where Seminole culture keepers share their traditions each year. Extending his reach beyond Florida, he established himself as a Grammy nominated songwriter, releasing three albums of original songs and one album of stories inspired by Seminole culture. With unwavering tenacity and determination, James Billie has been a stalwart defender and advocate of Seminole history and culture, and his legacy of leadership will influence generations to come.