Big Chief Moneybags

Part CEO, part shaman, Seminole leader James Billie has his tribe charging toward economic independence.

Seminole Indian chief James Billie, dressed in traditional multicolor jersey and snakeskin boots, is dropping fast from two miles above the earth toward his target -- a windblown airport runway in Tallahassee. The man sitting next to him in the copilot's seat, an old friend of mixed Creek Indian and Anglo lineage, has grown accustomed to Billie's 200-mile-per-hour nosedives, but a third occupant of the airplane is nervously grabbing at a seat belt.

The eight-seat Turbocommander Billie flies today is sleek and fast but actually represents a certain fiscal modesty. Until he sold his jet last year, Billie was in the habit of roaming the skies in a nine-million-dollar customized model once owned by Ferdinand Marcos. One of the last trips he took led from the Seminoles' Big Cypress reservation in western Broward to Nashville and on to Canada's Northwest Territories. He went there with members of his country music band to play a gig for some Inuit natives above the Arctic Circle and returned home with his hung-over entourage declaring the northern Indians a bunch of vodka-swilling drunks.

"The whole trip was like a hallucination," recalls band member John Stacey. "We're coming back from the show, and we gotta drop one guy off in St. Pete, but first we gotta see another man about an owl. So we go to Cross City, Florida. We radioed ahead, landed, and sat around and drank beer till the guy got there. The guy shows up with a live owl in a box, and two or three salted turkey carcasses. The feet and the feathers were still on the turkeys -- I figured it was for some kind of ceremonial thing. I'm layin' these turkey carcasses all over my amp and guitar and I'm thinking, you're not really supposed to just grab an owl and put him in a plane and take off. But that's how it always is traveling with James."

Billie's airplane, like his three helicopters, isn't technically his; all four belong to the tribe. And although he resembles a benevolent dictator in his management style, he shares power with members of an elected tribal council and board of directors. Yet virtually nothing gets done without his approval and involvement. (Billie says he earns about $200,000 per year in his dual role as chairman of the Seminole tribe and vice president of the corporation designed to manage the tribe's business affairs.)

Safe on the runway, Billie and pals park the plane and switch to a minivan, then head south, cell phones blazing as the towns of Panacea and Sopchoppy slip past and St. George Island appears off the Gulf Coast. In a few hours, Tallahassee will host a legislative reception for the Governor's Council on Indian Affairs. Billie may or may not attend, and no one will know what he intends to do until a few minutes before the event begins. It's an old guerrilla tactic from his days in Vietnam, he says -- keep your battle plans secret until you absolutely have to divulge them.

In Apalachicola the chief spends twenty minutes looking at a bed and breakfast the tribe might buy and also scouts a possible location for a new Seminole airboat concession. Then it's time for a "snack" of three dozen raw oysters, a vast pan of soft-shell crabs, salad, gumbo, Shiner Boch beer, and several servings of bread.

The cell phones continue to burble. Elderly diners at neighboring tables edge away from Billie's long-haired posse. The conversation rifles dizzily through a dozen or more of the tribe's more recent business enterprises: the Billie Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress reservation (an ecotourism park that promises to turn a profit within the next three years); the tribe's turtle-farming venture on the Brighton reservation; its rope factory and fledgling aircraft manufacturing company; pepper and citrus farms; a 3000-acre commercial hunting preserve west of Fort Lauderdale that just cleared $14,000 in a single weekend; commercial leases on cellular phone towers and RV parks; a condiment known as Seminole Swamp Seasoning, soon to appear on Winn-Dixie supermarket shelves statewide; "Chief's Jerky," an all-natural beef stick bearing the likeness of Osceola, the nineteenth-century Seminole war chief; an $80 million land purchase in central Florida that Billie and the tribal council are actively exploring.

Billie expresses a certain ambivalence about an upcoming trip to Tibet to meet with a botanist. The meeting is connected to the top-secret launch of a new herbal concoction called River of Grass. He shows more enthusiasm for a planned expedition to Minnesota to look at a machine capable of turning whole feathered chickens and wheat into dog and alligator food.

"The idea is to spread out into other ventures, so if the bingo halls get taken out from under us we won't be left in a 1960s situation," Billie says. "We didn't get where we are by being conservative, and we're not gonna start now. So we're trying a lot of different things as fast as we can. Some of 'em fizzle, some of 'em gonna make money. That's what it's about: money, independence, self-determination."

Smoke shops and tribal bingo halls in Tampa, Immokalee, Brighton, and Hollywood continue to account for 80 to 90 percent of the Seminoles' newfound wealth. Gaming revenues alone are projected at $497 million this year and now translate into $1500 monthly dividend checks for each of the 2440 enrolled members of the tribe.

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