Interviewee: Victor Billie
Interviewer: J. Ellison
11 August 1999
E: Today is the eleventh of August. It is Wednesday. I am at the Big Cypress Billie
Swamp Safari and I am talking with Victor Billie. During his lunch break we are
going to talk about some things like his work here and about where he has come
from, his family, and so forth. We will start out just with the basic questions. Is
your full name Victor Billie?
B: Yes, sir.
E: And what clan do you belong to?
B: Bird Clan.
E: It seems like Bird and Panther are a couple of the largest clans out here.
B: Yes, Bird and Panther and the Wind clans.
E: Were you born near Immokalee?
B: No. I was born in Dade county, born and raised down there.
E: What part of Dade county?
B: Really in Jackson Memorial Hospital. Back in 1960.
E: That is like my brother, he was born in 1960. Was Victor your English name?
Do you have a Mikasuki name?
B: I have a Seminole name, Kalah-ki.
E: Would you have any idea how to spell that in English?
B: You have to pronounce it and write it down, I guess. [Laughter.]
E: I think I will give that a try. Could you say it one more time?
E: I am spelling it K-A-L-A-H-K-I.
B: That is close enough.
E: What does that mean?
B: My elders told me it means Old Man. Old Man.
E: Old Man. And how come and they chose that name for you?
B: The reason why they chose that name for me, you would have to ask my elder.
She passed away. She was an old woman at the time. She was the oldest
woman when I was born. She was in the last Seminole War; she was sleeping in
a Seminole Indian village and the military sneaked in there early in the morning,
attacked everybody, and killed everybody. She was the only one that survived
and she crawled all the way down to the Miami area-before it was Miami. She
crawled all the way down there to Big Cypress, before it was Big Cypress, and
told the Seminole people what happened. Then they got in their canoes and
went back to the Seminole Indian village to see what happened. What they
saw-they say, they wanted to scare the Seminole people to quit the war and
scare them off. They say they hung old people, old women, and young kids,
upside down and burned them. The person, the female that survived, gave me
my name, I do not know why.
E: What was her name? Was she related to you?
B: She was my mother's father's mother.
E: And she gave you this name. You do not remember her name?
B: I will have to ask my mother. We are going to see her, so I will ask her.
E: Did you know her? Or did she pass away before you were old enough?
B: I knew her, but I was only about three or four years old when she passed away.
To me, when I talked to her, every chance that I talked to her, it was like opening
a book, or a television. It was like knowledge pouring out of her, telling me how it
was before the white people came into this land and after, and telling me what
roots I came from. She told me the stars, the universe, and even the land; she
told me about the medicine-where you can locate certain medicines, the names
of the trees, and even the birds. She was the one who taught me a lot.
E: Were there other people, also?
B: Yes. An old man by the name of Josie Billie, and Ingraham Billie taught me a lot,
too, about medicine, and life in general. At the time, Josie Billie was 125 years
old and his little brother was 120, I think, or 119. The things they taught me, it
was not to know the knowledge and push people around, or have knowledge to
make money. They gave me the knowledge-I took a little bit of knowledge from
them, and they told me to use it well and to help people with it.
E: That seems really important. And it seems very different than, maybe, the
knowledge you would get about your culture and so forth from any other place.
B: Yes. I went to school until third grade.
E: Where did you go?
B: Everglades, in Fort Myers. What I saw in school, they taught you to take for
yourself, to make money for yourself, not to share. They say, if you have
knowledge, it is power to use it against people or push people around. My elders
always told me [that] what knowledge they gave me, it was not to use against
people to be a king or be a leader. [Instead, it was] to be yourself; to be strong
and help your village any way you can.
E: That is important. That is something that you did not see in school?
B: In school, like I said-it is good to have knowledge of somebody else's
knowledge to survive and to exist among them, but it is not good to try to be like
them, to destroy your land, to destroy the air you breathe, to destroy the water
you drink. Those are the things that are very important on this land. If you go to
school and learn this technology, it teaches you to hurt and destroy. We have
survived on this land for a million years and the Europeans have been here five
or six hundred years and look at how much they destroy, each day. They are not
going to see the beauty of Florida and the United States in about twenty or thirty
years. The kids are going to see the beauty only when they open up a book or
put it in a VCR. And that is a waste. They are not going to feel the beauty, they
are not going to smell the beauty.
E: In your own lifetime, is this something you see that has changed a lot?
B: It has changed a whole lot.
E: From the time you were a kid?
B: Yes, it has changed a whole lot. When I was a kid, we were living in an Indian
village of our Bird Clan. When I got up in the morning, we did not have to walk
two miles or ten miles to fish. All we had to do was get up in the morning and sit
on the edge of our chickee and fish, because the water was high and it was right
there. You did not have to go too far to catch a bass or fish or anything you
wanted to survive in the village. But today, the water is draining. The reason
why the water is draining is the sugar cane and the canals. They are digging too
much. The water is draining. You have to go drive around to fish and catch a
E: Is the water polluted?
B: Yes, it is polluted; especially in the everglades, it is polluted a whole lot. In my
time, you could eat any kind of fish-as much as you wanted. When the sugar
cane company came in and drained the Everglades-the Everglades used to go
all the way to Okeechobee, and past. The sugar cane company came in and
drained the Everglades and made sugar fields. When they use the water over
and over to spray the sugar cane [they] contaminate it, and still they use it over
and over. They release it in the canal and it goes all the way down to the
Everglades and settles down. The chemicals that settle down turn into mercury;
the fish eat that mercury and live on it. Now you see a sign in the Everglades,
they say, you can eat two fish a day. It has changed a lot.
E: They say you can eat two fish a day and still not be harmed? That is a big
change. Are both your parents alive?
B: Yes, sir.
E: Do they talk about how it has changed in their lifetime?
E: Did your parents ever go to school?
B: No, they never went to school.
E: How did they make a living?
B: My father learned a trade-mechanic, welding, and fixing things by his hands-
through his father and working with non-Indians back in the early 1950s. He
used to operate bulldozers and all that.
E: And your mom?
B: No. When I was younger, when I was about six or seven, she never left the
Indian village. She always stayed and took care of us. But when we were living
near 41 [the Tamiami Trail], there was too much encroachment around them.
We could not survive like we used to so my father started working in farming, like
tomatoes, picking, for seasons. So, we had to move around. We had to go in
Fort Myers, Naples, Sarasota, all that. My mother started working then in the
E: She started picking. That is hard work.
B: Yes, it is; hard work and no vacation. You had to get up before the sunrise and
go home when the sun went down. You made about ten dollars a day,
sometimes less. I started working when I was about six or ten years old.
E: Doing that?
E: Do you remember doing that?
B: Yes. All my brothers worked in the field.
E: Do you have a lot of brothers?
B: I have four brothers and one sister. We did that to survive but we never tried to
push our way of life or our tradition and language away. We tired to keep it
strong in our family-especially my father. He always said, do not ever forget
who we are, and what we are, and what we came from, and where we are going.
If we forget who we were in the past, we cannot go forward, we cannot be
E: Did your brothers and sister go to school?
B: Yes. We all went to school but we never finished school. My sister never did,
never went to school.
E: Did your parents say that they thought school was-well, it sounds like you were
working all of the time, so you could not go to school.
B: The reason we went to school was our elders and some of our fathers and the
mothers; they knew how to speak English, but not very well, and they did not
understand it. They made the younger ones-they made us-go to school to
understand their language [English] so that we could use that to understand the
law in their language.
E: That is what I have heard other people say as well, that if the children went to
school, then it would help the older people when they were facing some of these
issues, facing white people and dealing with laws. So, they actually wanted you
to go to school for that purpose?
E: And you left after about three grades. What was the main reason that you left
B: The main reason was, in the non-Indian society, like the city, the main purpose in
life, to survive in the city, is money. We were living in the outskirts of the city of
Naples or Fort Myers and we had to have money to go to the doctor. We had to
have money to go eat, to buy groceries, and that was the main purpose. If it was
not, we would still be living back in the Everglades.
E: Have you ever lived in the city?
B: As I remember, we did, but not for too long of a time, maybe about a month,
maybe a month and a half. Then we moved out and lived in the outskirts, and we
would make our own village in the woods. Even now, my people's village, my
home village, they are living on the property of the people my father's sisters
[work for], they are working on a farm; they are living on their property. It is
E: Right now, what you do for a living is here at the Safari lodge.
B: Yes, but I do a little bit of carpentry, a little bit of welding, a little bit of everything.
I could do almost anything-a mechanic.
They say racism is gone from this land, but to me it is strong and alive. Back in
the 1940s and 1950s, it used to be that you could show it in front of everybody. If
you did not like blacks or Indians, you could do what you wanted, if you were
non-Indian. Today, they still feel like that but they keep it deep inside.
E: So, it is there, but it is hidden?
E: Where do you feel that most? Do you find it when you go into town? Did you
see it in school?
B: I see it everywhere. I see it even here. I see it everywhere. When I go to the
city, even if I go to a little community of non-Indians, I see it every day. I deal
with it every day. But to me, like my father told me, if you want to keep strong
and put your head up, you have to learn your past, what your past has got to
offer you. That is what I did. Ingraham Billie, Josie Billie, and the woman who
gave me my name, my Indian name, always taught me: your past will give you
strength. If somebody pushes you down, you get up and dust yourself [off] and
push them. To me, the only people I do not like, and I do not agree with and I do
not associate with, are the people that do not associate with me and do not like
me. It might be white, Chinese, or black, or another Indian. Just leave me alone
and let me believe in what I believe. Do not let your belief force on me. If you
force it on me, I am going to push you back or we are going to fight.
E: I am thinking about school. I am thinking about this whole issue when you went
to school. It was a public school you went to?
B: Yes, a public school.
E: And now, are you a member of the Seminole Tribe?
B: No. I am in the Traditional Independent Seminole Nation.
E: What I was going to ask had to do with the school that is on Big Cypress now, if
you have had any kind of contact with that school and know what they are doing
in terms of language and culture preservation, and what you think about that.
B: To me, what I learned from my traditional ways and my traditional language, is
needing to my elders ...
[AIR BOAT INTERFERENCE]
E: That is real loud. So you are saying that the elders ...
B: When I got my knowledge of traditional ways and our laws and how to behave
among people was when I talked to my elders. I was taught to listen, and when
he is breathing at me, that is the lesson, in there, put in my mouth and my
nostrils. The way that schools are teaching, they cannot get that effect. What
they are learning from school about traditional ways and the language is from a
book. It has no feelings. It has no soul. When I learned my ways, I learned
them from a person that was alive, experiencing, teaching me and giving me the
feelings and the pain and everything about him and about tradition. I cannot get
that from a book or from a VCR or cassette. And I want them to learn that way. I
do not want them to learn from a book.
E: Do you have children?
B: No. I have never had kids.
E: Do your brothers and sisters have children?
B: Yes, all my brothers and my sister have kids.
E: So, they are having an opportunity to grow up and learn the way you are talking
B: Yes. But, today's kids, there is non-Indian influence around them every day,
even in the cars, even when they walk around, even if they are driving. It is
making them lose touch with our beliefs and our people. Some of the young kids
today, they do not even know how to speak their language. Even if they have a
full-blooded mom and a full-blooded dad, all they know is English, and
sometimes they try to speak it and they speak broken-Seminole language.
E: Do you understand Creek and Mikasuki?
B: I can just barely understand Creek. But I speak Seminole, not Mikasuki.
Miccosukee was established back in 1959 and 1960. It is a young tribe. I have
been speaking long before they were established, the Miccosukee. Our
language has survived millions and millions of years, long before it was
Miccosukee; so I am speaking Seminole, not Miccosukee.
E: Is it important for people to have any kind of education, like vocational
education? You said your father did his mechanics. Is there value in people
learning those kinds of things in an educational place? I guess that is a hard
question because it ties together this whole issue of how people are going to
interact with non-Indian people in this society that is encroaching, that you talked
B: It is good, [except] when they are born they do not let them learn their way first.
The first time a Seminole baby is born, after it is born, about a year later, when it
is one year old, they force him to go to school. Do not do that. Let them learn
about themselves, about their culture and their language [until] they are about ten
or eleven years old. Let us teach them first, then let them go to school, if they
want. They do not do that. They let them go to school when they are about one
or two years old, and they forget. My elders once said, when an Indian boy or an
Indian girl goes to school, they have two brains. Two brains cannot work
together, like Indian and white. They fight among each other and the Indian way
will die and the white man will take over and [the Indian] will lose his language
and lose his way and lose his direction. That is what happens today in the
reservations. They do not know what they are going to do, which direction they
have to go. That is why they are using drugs and alcohol. They do not know
who they are.
E: Because it is this split, part dealing in the white world, and part dealing in the
B: Yes. And the Indian dies inside of them and they want to kill the pain. That is
why they use drugs and alcohol.
E: Is it less of a problem where you are living, in that community?
B: We have the same problem. Look at me; I am talking about traditional ways and
this and that, but me, I am no angel myself. I used to do drugs, and alcohol, too.
I am not a perfect man. But, when I found my direction, it was an Indian way
and it made me stronger, so I do not drink alcohol or do drugs now.
E: And the Indian way showed you the way out of it.
E: And that is the important difference?
B: It is good to learn both ways, but I want to keep my Indian ways stronger than
English or non-Indian ways, and have a trade, like a mechanic and all that, to
survive in their world.
E: I see on this reservation and in other parts of South Florida there are Christian
churches that Indians belong to, and for generations Indians have been joining
Christian churches in Florida. The people in the community where you live, are
any of them Christians?
B: No, we are not Christian or Catholic or Baptist or anything. We have our own
belief, our own God. Our God, we call him Fosa Kimechi, the Breathgiver. We
do not want to kill our God and his teaching and his law that were given to us to
satisfy somebody else's law and God. I do not want to go in a church and kneel
down and pray. God is everywhere, to me. God is the water; God is the land;
God is the sky and the universe. I do not need to go in a building and kneel. All I
need is God with me and inside of me to survive. Even if we cut a pole or a tree,
we give thanks to God. We are very religious people but not in a Christian or
E: It is a different religion. Do you think that when other Indians have joined the
Christian church they have forgotten or left aside some of this? They have
moved away from it?
E: Is that a problem, do you think?
B: To me, when they did that, it was their choice. I cannot force my belief. But, I
am going to tell you how I feel. I cannot force my belief onto another Indian or
another person. I do not want to let him kill his God to understand me. I want
them to understand me with my God and with their God and with their belief. If
they cannot understand me with my God and my belief and my tradition, and they
want to go with their belief and their God, do not try to kill me, or do not try to
force me to do something. If you force me to do something like killing my God
and my language, I am going to do something to you, back.
E: One of the things that I am interested in seeing is, you are talking about a big
change in the way a lot of Seminole Indians have dealt with culture and their own
traditional practices. It has been changing a lot in the last one hundred years
and in the last generation. One of the things I am asking about, that I am curious
about, is Christianity. By people joining a church, do you think that is a move
away from, or something that works okay, with some traditional or cultural
practices? I am not trying to say, is it right or wrong? I am not trying to ask you
to speak against something, or to tell somebody else how to believe, but I am
curious if that is a move away from some of the practices and ideas that maybe
you see as important.
B: How can I answer that?
E: I am not sure. Why don't we leave that one aside, because I think it will come up
in some of these other questions, maybe in a different way. Let's shift gears and
talk about health issues for a minute and then from there we will see what comes
up. In looking at Seminole Indians and non-tribal members, and Indians of South
Florida, what do you see as being some of the major health issues that that
people face, if you could say that this is the primary health problem?
B: The primary health problem on each reservation, to me, is drugs and alcohol.
There is cancer and diabetes among my elders, but that was by the ways of
getting closer to the non-Indians. That is how we got those diseases. Drugs and
alcohol is their choice. It is the individual choice to be sick. That is more
damaging and more hurting to our beliefs and our ways of life.
E: How do people overcome that kind of problem? Is there a good way for people?
B: An Indian person is a strong person, to me. A female or a male is a strong
person. If he wants to, he can put his mind [to it] and can move a mountain and
can reach the unreachable star. A teenage Seminole Indian can do that. But he
puts an obstacle before himself, like drugs and alcohol, that makes it bigger [so]
that he cannot go around and cannot go under and cannot go over. He is
making it bigger each day in relying on those drugs to ease the pain or release
himself to live better-but it is not. Like I said, they can do anything, they even
can quit doing drugs if they believe in themselves, and if somebody, like another
Seminole or an elder, believes in them. But today, we do not have a connection
among each other; like I said, we do not have communication and love for our
own brothers and sisters. We are kind of jealous among each other, jealous
because they got a new car, or a new house, and a status that they are looking
at, like money. They are kind of jealous of each other. We are like that. That is
how we are killing each other. We do not want to connect anymore. When I was
a child, when I was growing up in the village, if somebody got hurt twenty or fifty
miles away, and if they heard it, some of our elders used to gather some clothes
and some food and walk way down there, or be in a canoe going down there, to
help them because they had that connection, that love and respect for each
other. Today, we are in to too much non-Indian ways and beliefs. We are losing
that connection and love and respect for each other.
E: I am a little concerned about the time because you are going to have to go back
to work. I am going to ask a couple of really quick questions and leave a lot of
this behind. Is any of the work you do here-when you are taking people out-
does that help? One of the things I see happening on this reservation with the
museum, for example, and the safari, is that there is an attempt to do some
preservation. The museum is trying to preserve a lot of cultural traditions and
present them to people. The safari seems to me to be trying to preserve some of
the natural environment and present that to people. Do you see, in your work,
that you are able to do some of that? Do you feel like you are doing preservation
work here, or do you think that maybe that is not what is happening?
B: What is that word you used, preservation? I cannot pronounce that word. It is
doing that, but not as much. This area is made for making money. They
preserve, but in time they are going to change it again to try to make more
money, trying to make it more interesting. Sometimes it is heading the wrong
E: I guess it does not recreate the kind of community that you were talking about.
E: And a lot of the people you deal with here are people like me, they are outsiders.
Is that important at all, to talk with the tourists who come?
B: Yes, I think that is very important. Since the time of the European arrival and
Spanish arrival, we have never sat down like human to human and tried to come
together and try to communicate. We always thought, this is mine and this is
yours, and do not trust this and do not trust past this. We have fought and killed,
I have fought and killed your brothers and you have fought and killed my brothers
and my sisters, like I did to you. And of all that fighting, nothing good ever came
of that. We need to sit down and really communicate and ask questions from our
hearts, not to take knowledge but to use it to scratch each other's back. We
need to sit down and communicate and ask questions that are very important
questions; try to communicate one-to-one with each other's heart. Not in here; in
our soul and our heart, in our hopes and our beliefs. I think that is good when a
white man and an Indian, or a Mexican, or a black man, sit down a really
communicate and ask questions among each other. We might yell and scream
and all that, but with that yelling and screaming, we might create something that
the whole world might use to understand.
E: So, in that sense, some of this does some good, it brings people to where they
can interact with you or others. I am really worried about your break.
B: Okay, me too. It is past anyway.
E: Because we are interested in trying to talk about the changes in the last
generation, is there anything else that we have not talked about that, in a couple
minutes, you want add about what you see as being some of the major changes
in the last generation? Is there anything that you want to say?
B: Like I said, the most important problem we have today is hatred, [and it] is getting
bigger, and the policing is getting bigger. We are not going to survive too long if
we keep on hating each other and keep on destroying this beautiful earth. We
are not going to accomplish what we need to in the future. That is all I have to
E: Okay. I am really grateful for your time. I am glad you could do this.
B: Nice talking to you.