OKEECHOBEE, Florida — Aubee Billie couldn’t miss this occasion. Her father was celebrating another birthday, and she needed to be here for it.
“Seventy-nine never looked so good,” she told the 125 or so well-wishers who joined her on this warm Saturday.
They all knew what Aubee Billie knew, which was her father, Jim Billie, didn’t have a 50-year plan.
At 20, she does.
Rather than spend this spring afternoon at Elon University, the doting daughter returned to Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation to pay homage to him and to embrace the camaraderie he’s nurtured throughout his life.
Oh, what a life!
Jim Billie has rung every ounce of living out of his 79 years. He was the son of a Native American teenager and never knew his white father, a military man. In his boyhood, Jim Billie hopped from one home to another, searching for ways to uncomplicate his life.
He found them.
How he did is a story other people will tell — perhaps in books or in a podcast. Jim Billie is certainly worthy of both. For in the last century, not a single Native American has done as much for his people as he has.
Historians might not compare him to Sitting Bull or Geronimo now, but they might in time. Billie helped Seminoles to prosper, and their prosperity has been his. He’s guided their growth through the gaming industry in Florida.
He built friendships with the rich and powerful, and Billie himself became rich and powerful — the voice and public face of the Seminoles. He is Native American royalty, which means Aubee Billie is royalty.
As a sophomore at Elon, she’s mindful of that fact. She’s been proudly schooling her contemporaries on life as a Native American in the USA. She takes every opportunity that presents itself to share with them her culture, her tribal history, her father’s legacy.
She doesn’t run from the latter.
“I think the legacy for me is to be as educated as I possibly can but to learn more,” Aubee Billie said. “I want to make sure that all my people are comfortable and safe.
“Yeah, just building a community.”
Her father pieced together that community from whole cloth, but his effort had seams. Aubee Billie has heard the sordid stories about his colorful past, and she knows about his rock-solid commitment to turn the Seminoles from a burden on the state to a tribe that stands tall on its own legs.
Oftentimes, outsiders don’t see that part of her father’s life, for how many of them have stepped foot on an Indian reservation? Even worse, how many care about the plight of Native Americans?
Aubee Billie has no choice but to care. The Seminoles are her people. Her father is one of their leaders — perhaps the most significant leader in tribal history. He has shaped their past; his daughter intends to play a role in shaping their future.
She looks with optimism at that future.
“There’s always so many promising people here with such great ideas,” said Aubee Billie, referring to the men, women and youth at her father’s birthday party. “I feel a lot of the people here are very optimistic. But maybe that’s just my optimism showing within them.”
Or maybe it’s her father’s optimism pumping through her veins.