OKEECHOBEE — Seminole Sandy Billie organized a gathering on Friday, Nov. 13, at Flagler Park to celebrate National Native American Heritage Month. Wearing traditional clothing and distributing homemade pumpkin bread, a group of Native Americans stood on the corner of U.S. 441 and State Road 70 in order to raise awareness of some things they felt needed to be brought to the attention of the general public.
Martha Tommie from the Brighton Reservation said she wanted everyone to know that all people matter. “We don’t need all this hatred. I feel strong about it. We need to pass on to the next generation that all the colors we wear represent everybody, my family, your family, everybody. We are all important. We need to come together and work as one.”
Tommie was also trying to get the message out about the need for clean water in Florida. “My grandbabies have a right to clean water,” she said. In 2016, she and other members of the tribe drove to North Dakota to fight alongside fellow Native Americans protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline on their tribal lands. Despite their efforts, they were unable to halt construction. Later, though, the tribe sued in federal court and won.
The third problem Tommie discussed was about indigenous girls and women who are reported missing or are murdered. One in three Native American girls and women just disappear, she said. The murders are often not solved and the bodies not found, said Alice Osceola.
The subject is near and dear to the heart of Osceola, because her niece Hanna was one of those missing and murdered young women. Hanna Harris, a 21-year-old Native American woman, was missing for several days before she was found on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013. Her death brought about Hanna’s Act, officially known as House Bill 21. The bill created a position in the Montana Department of Justice to investigate all missing persons cases in the state. “We want to be heard, too,” said Tommie. “Women’s voices matter.”
Tommie has 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She considers them her footprints in the world and wants to leave the world a better place for them.
Joining the Seminoles in their demonstration was James White, who was passing by when he saw them on the corner. He stopped to ask how he could help. He told Osceola he felt God wanted him to offer and he always tried go where God led. He held a sign reading, “Native lives matter” for several hours.
Cpl. Jack Nash from the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office stopped by to bring the demonstrators something to drink, and Mayor Dowling Watford spent some time with them on the corner as well.