Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Interviewee: Henry John Billie
Interviewer: R. Howard
27 April 1999
Henry John Billie, woodcarver
This brief interview contains some interesting material on woodcarving and changes to the
environment, but it appears that translation interrupted a 'flow' in the interview. There are
numerous places in the interview when the interviewee and translator have conversations about
the questions, and the interviewer is left out of these dialogues.
Mr. Billie is an interesting person because of his occupation, his age, and where he was born and
lived. As a carver of canoes, he practices a craft that is rare. Most of his customers are museums
and tourist villages, such as at Hollywood and Miccosukee (8). However, the information from
this interview that may be most worth citing includes his brief discussions of the Green Corn
Dance, housing and income from gaming, and the environment.
About the corn dance, Billie explains that there is no clear English equivalent for the person in
charge, but that "they just call him medicine man" (4). He also has the opinion that the structure
and content of the corn dance have not changed, but that "the people have changed" (4).
Billie lives in a trailer, although he was raised in a chickee and lived for a time in one as an
adult. The major difference, he says, is that the trailer has electricity and so on. The chickee,
while lacking those amenities, was also free, whereas he now has to pay for electricity and so
forth, and "that is how it has changed" (5).What allows him to pay those bills is his receipt of a
dividend as a shareholder in the Tribe.
The biggest change in the environment, Billie notes, is in hunting. Game is no longer available,
young people, who eat store-bought food, do not know how to hunt. Similarly, he notes, there
has been degradation. The water is not drinkable, and the fish-when they can be found-are
H: I am talking this evening, April 27, 1999, with Mr. Henry John Billie, and we are
meeting in his chickee. Also with us, to help interpret, is Miss Daisi Jumper.
Henry John Billie, to what clan do you belong?
H: When and where were you born?
B: I think it is in Dade County, but it is way out there, salt water, between
Chokoloskee and Cape Sable, that area, Ten Thousand Islands, in 1925.
H: Are you Mikasuki or Muskogee?
H: Do you have a Mikasuki or Muskogee name?
B: I think it is Mikasuki. Our languages are Seminole.
[Answers that are translations by Jumper from Mikasuki are signified by "B[J]."]
J: He has two Indian names. His manhood name is ...
H: What was the second name?
B[J]: He is not going to say that because that is his boyhood name.
H: Who named you that name, and why did they choose it?
B: My grandmother.
J. He is not going to say [what it means].
H: Have you always lived on the reservation?
B: No. I grew up back there, so I think it was 1942 or somewhere around there.
H: You moved out here in 1942?
H: Tell me about what your primary occupation is.
B: Woodcarving. Arts and crafts.
H: Tell me about the history of that. How long have you been doing that?
Henry John Billie
B: Since 1939.
H: Since 1939? That is about sixty years. Are you the only one who still does the
B[J]: He started carving for household use, carving spoons and stuff like that, tools.
But to sell is maybe 1945.
H: Are there any young people here on the reservation today who are learning this
B: Not that I know.
H: Tell me what you think that means. Is it an important part of Seminole tradition,
the boat making?
B[J]: People do not use canoes anymore, and it is not as important as it used to be, so
people do not really make it anymore. But he grew up using canoes and it was
part of his life. That is the reason he carves canoes, even today. It is important
to him. It used to be important to him and still is.
H: What do you know about Seminole history, like the Seminole wars and some of
the famous people like Osceola?
B[J]: He says he does not know very much of the history. He has just heard about the
leaders, the names of the leaders, but not a lot of history.
H: Can you tell me what schools, if any, you have attended?
B[J]: He has never gone to school.
H: Tell me about your father and your mother. What did they do for a living?
B[J]: They did not have any jobs. His father hunted to provide food and his mother
made their own clothing. But they did not sell things back then; it was just for
their own use. They just hunted and lived. They sold hides.
H: What kind of hides?
B: Alligators, raccoons, otters, and animals like that.
H: Whom did you sell them to? You sold them to traders who were there?
J: There used to be a store at Chokoloskee, a small one. It was a trading post.
Henry John Billie
H: What kinds of things would you trade them for? What did you get when you
traded the hides?
B[J]: Coffee, flour, sugar, rice, and bread.
H: Do you go to church?
H: When did you start going? How long ago?
B: 1945. I did not go every Sunday.
H: Some people believe in Christianity and some Seminoles do not. Do you think
that causes a problem between them, between the believers and the non-
B[J]: No. He does not know of any problems.
H: Do you know any medicine men or medicine women who continue to practice
B[J]: He said there are some, but they are not as fully trained in medicine as they used
H: Do some people practice medicine or allow themselves to be treated by medicine
men and still belong to the Christian church?
B[J]: He said yes, because it comes through God, the knowledge and the power of the
H: Does the tribe still have the annual Green Corn Dance?
B[J]: The Miccosukee tribe still holds it.
H: Have you attended a Green Corn Dance?
H: Are outsiders allowed to attend it, or just tribal members?
B[J]: No. They are not supposed to.
H: Only tribal members. Who is in charge of the Green Corn Dance?
Henry John Billie
B[J]: It is not really by a medicine man, but we have no word for the person who does
the corn dance. They just call him medicine man.
H: And he is in charge of the corn dance. Would you say that the Green Corn
Dance has changed over the last thirty years?
B[J]: The medicine and everything else is the same, but just the people have changed.
H: In what ways?
B[J]: The people-like Christianity has gotten in the way for the people. The medicine
and everything else is still the same as thousands of years ago.
H: One of the rituals that are done at the Green Corn Dance is scratching. Have
you ever been scratched? What is the purpose of that?
B[J]: It just has something to do with the medicine and he is not saying what. You can
get scratched for-it is like discipline.
H: How about fasting. Have you ever fasted?
B[J]: A long time ago he fasted.
H: Have you ever had something called black drink?
B: That is not Seminole.
H: Have you ever used a sweat lodge?
B[J]: Sixty years ago, when he was active in the corn dance.
H: So you are not really active in the corn dance anymore, or you are?
B: Yes, once in a while.
J: Like he said, you really do not know, being a Christian. They say, do not do this,
and so it has confused a lot of people.
H: You were telling me that the canoe making, back when you learned it, was really
because you needed canoes and you used them for transportation, but now they
are really not something that is needed as much. So, what do you think are the
most important economic activities that the tribe does today?
B[J]: The gambling and casinos. He says, a long time ago there was nothing here, no
roads or anything like that. Then they got started with the vegetables and
Henry John Billie
farming. They made the roads for those kinds of things, growing things, farming.
And now he believes that it is the gambling and casinos.
H: A long time ago the Seminoles, or most of the Seminoles, lived in these
chickees, like we are sitting under tonight. Can you tell me about the house you
live in today? Do you still live in a chickee, or do you have a house?
B: I have a trailer.
H: That is a lot different than how you grew up, in a chickee. Tell me about the
changes in the housing in the past thirty years.
B[J]: He said his mother's camp was here. They lived in chickees. He lived in a
chickee about thirty years ago and did not have to pay electricity and everything
else, but now he lives in a trailer and he has to pay electricity and all that. So
that is how it has changed. He has to pay now.
H: All of the changes that have been made with the different economic activities that
you have been describing, I want to know how these changes have affected your
B[J]: He said that it has helped him. He does not work, so it has helped him with
money. He gets to pay his bills and everything with what he gets as a
shareholder, from all these enterprises, wherever the money comes from. What
little he gets, he said it has helped him.
H: Have you ever visited the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum?
B[J]: He said he works there two days a week.
H: What do you do there?
B: Same. Canoe.
H: Do you give demonstrations to visitors?
H: What do think about the rest of the museum? Have you been through it and
seen the exhibits?
B[J]: He feels it is good. It helps tell the people about who we are. He said he thinks it
H: Do you have children?
Henry John Billie
H: Did they attend the schools here, or did they go to boarding schools?
B: All of them are grown. They used to go to boarding school in Oklahoma.
H: Did you teach any of them your woodcarving?
H: How would you say the land, the physical environment, has changed in the last
B[J]: There is no hunting anymore. You cannot hunt for your food. He says there are
houses that people can live in, and that is good. But then, in some things, like
hunting, you cannot do that anymore.
H: So people do not really rely on the environment for their survival now like they did
a generation ago?
B[J]: He said you cannot hunt anymore because the animals are in cages or they are
fenced in now, and you cannot drink the water like you used to. And the fish and
the waters are not good; you cannot eat the fish that are in there. You cannot
find any fish, either. And the children now they just eat store-bought food and
stuff, so they do not know how to hunt. That is what is different.
H: Since you give demonstrations of your canoe making, I want to ask you some
questions about tourism. Do you come into contact with tourists a lot or a little?
B[J]: He does not really talk to the tourists, but he does work out there for
demonstration, and they come and watch him. But he does not really talk to the
H: Do you see a benefit to presenting Seminole culture to non-Seminole visitors or
tourists? Is there a benefit to Seminoles, or are there problems?
B[J]: He does not think it would benefit the non-Indians.
H: Let me talk to you a little bit more about your carving. Who taught you?
B: Watching my dad.
H: What was his name?
Henry John Billie
H: Are the boats the main thing that you carve, or are they the only thing that you
carve? If not, what other kinds of carvings do you do?
B[J]: Corn grinders, tomahawks, knives, and the big spoons used for sofkee.
Everything that they use he carves.
H: I imagine there used to be a lot more demand for the everyday tools than there is
now. Well, that is about all the questions that I have for you. Is there anything
you think we should know about Seminole culture that I have not asked you
B[J]: He said he really does not have anything else to say.
H: One more question about the canoes. Who buys them from you when you have
B: Nowadays? Mostly museums, and those kinds of villages in Hollywood and
Miccosukee. They order them. They do not use them, but they are just to look
H: How long does it take you to carve a large one?
B: Part-time is about six months.
H: And do you do it all by yourself? Yes. Have there ever been any women who
have done woodcarving?
B: Not that I know.
H: Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.
B: You are welcome.