In late 2012, I had the unique opportunity to be introduced to The Chief of The Seminole Tribe of Florida, James E. Billie. We met to discuss Nomad Two Worlds, an artistic project that I founded in 2001 as a way to collaborate with other cultures. However, our meeting soon turned into a compelling conversation that spanned many subjects. When I left Chief Billie a few hours later, I realized that I had just been given an extraordinary first hand insight into a powerful part of modern day history that likely few people knew about. I had just met with The Chief of The Tribe often and rightly referred to as 'The Unconquered’.

Russell and Chief Billie

With the blessing of Chief Billie, I then embarked on a two-year exploration of The Seminole Tribe of Florida, with the goal of creating an artistic interpretation. I was granted special access to Seminole Lands, cultural sites and traditions. More importantly, I was personally introduced to a diverse cross-section of Tribal Members, spanning all clans. I filmed, photographed and had extended conversations with Tribal Members in their reservations at Brighton, Big Cyprus and other Seminole Lands. It became abundantly clear to me that the driving force behind The Tribe was their thriving culture. Instead of mere memories of a culture past, I clearly saw both modern and ancient traditions being celebrated and living harmoniously side by side.

Tribe

However, I struggled to find a concept that could properly capture the essence of what I was experiencing. After hearing many accounts and perspectives of Seminole history, visiting historical sites, museums and spending time with spiritual leaders and cultural teachers, I still felt entirely unqualified to represent Seminole history in any way. In fact, having visited The Tribe’s museum in Big Cyprus, I could see that The Tribe have done a world-class job of preserving their history. What could I possibly add?

The answer presented itself during an interview with Chief Billie in 2014 in his chickee hut on Brighton Reservation. We had been speaking for a long time, and I had question on my mind that I had long refrained from asking him out of concern it may seem disrespectful. However, it simply felt right to ask at that moment, so I did. Why, after having several wars waged against them by the US military, and suffering devastating loss of human life that reduced The Tribe from eighty seven thousand to just three hundred, why was Chief Billie sitting in front of me as a US war veteran? Surrounded by people from many cultures that were a part of my film production team, I asked the question: Why would you possibly fight for a country that tried to wipe you out?

Chief Billie’s answer was consistent with the point of view of every person in The Tribe I had ever met:

‘We adapt and we move forward. We acknowledge the past but we don’t live in it. I am The Chief of My Tribe. I am an American. I am proud of both’.

After I sat with that answer for a while, I realized that Chief Billie had just recited all the reasons I had started Nomad Two Worlds back in 2001. His words resonated and reminded me of words broadcast around the world from Australia in 2008:

‘It’s time to move forward together’.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is a living example of how the past and the present can be reconciled to create a better future - a lesson for an entire world in crisis.

Seminole Spirit

From that moment on, I realized that I had no business trying to re-tell the history of the Seminole Tribe. In many ways, I would have been doing them a great disservice and inaccurately represent how they currently thrive in modern day society. So ‘Seminole Spirit’ was born: a metaphor for the past, present and future of The Seminole Tribe, and a symbol of true cultural relevance.

It is no secret that Behati Prinsloo is one of the most beautiful and relevant models in the world today. However, what inspires me the most about Behati is her obvious spirit and joy of just being alive. When I told Behati what I had learned about The Seminole Tribe and the journey I was on, she instantly agreed to become an artistic partner. Before my profound conversation with Chief Billie, we had assembled one of the best creative teams imaginable, and filmed and photographed concepts that were inspired by Seminole Lands. After my conversation with Chief Billie, I realized that we had unwittingly created a living metaphor to represent the strength, vision, beauty and cultural relevance of The Seminole Tribe of Florida. I called her ‘Seminole Spirit’.

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‘Seminole Spirit’ is not a historical account. ‘She’ is a visual expression of what I feel when I am in Seminole Country. The Seminole Tribe of Florida are the most progressive and determined group of people I have ever met; their history of struggle, reinvention and adaptation is one of the greatest untold stories I have encountered. I believe their story deserves to be a source of global inspiration.

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I’d like to say that ‘Seminole Spirit’ is all my own. However, that would be a great misrepresentation of the collaborative effort that was required to bring her to life. ‘Seminole Spirit’ is the collective imagination and inspiration of Behati Prinsloo, Ali Franco, Joyce Lanigan, Italo Gregorio, Fulvia Farolfi, Larry Mullin, Jim Osceola, Victor Tiffany, Tristam Steinberg, Ilias Fiakka, Trevor Owsley and so many more. I was just lucky enough to be a part of an amazing ensemble.

I am so humbled by the opportunity given to me by Chief Billie and The Seminole Tribe of Florida - it has been such an honor to experience their culture and witness how they have truly moved forward together.

The ‘Seminole Spirit’ exhibition will be open to the public in New York City on the following dates. I will be at the gallery often during this time and look forward to sharing my special journey with you.

Urban Zen (Stephan Weiss Studio)
711 Greenwich Street, New York NY

February 20 (10.30am to 4.30pm); February 23-26 (10.30am to 4.30pm); March 2-6 (10.30am to 4.30pm)

For those who cannot attend, the full collection is also available for viewing online at ARTSY.

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