Big Chief Moneybags

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

"I don't see any downside at all," Billie says of the new prosperity. "It's just gonna take awhile for people to learn how to handle it. I remember when the money started coming in, one of our young fellas went out and bought the biggest pickup truck he could buy, all loaded with stereo equipment, power this, power that. Next week I see the truck flipped over in the ditch and him walking down the road just like before." But Billie knows the gold rush could dry up overnight. Hence the new adventures in capitalism and a hedging of bets bankrolled by gaming profits.

The Seminoles won a series of court battles in the Eighties that upheld their right to operate high-stakes bingo halls and sell tax-free cigarettes on reservation land. And though Billie is arguably the leading pioneer of Indian gaming in America, he and his Seminoles have fallen short of establishing full-blown casino gambling like the Muckleshoot Indians of Washington State or the Mashantucket Pequots who run Connecticut's Foxwoods casino -- the largest and most lucrative gambling house in the Western Hemisphere.

The problem is that the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires a "compact" between a state and a tribe before Las Vegas-style gambling can take place on Indian land. For years Florida has refused to negotiate such an agreement with the Seminoles. Moreover, both federal and state law enforcement authorities contend that the existing Seminole gaming palaces are illegal because of the presence of video slot machines and low-stakes poker rooms. State and federal authorities have so far opted against direct intervention, choosing to sue instead. Court action is bogged in jurisdictional and sovereignty questions.

Billie believes he's within his rights as the leader of a sovereign nation to force the issue of all-out casino gambling. Treaties and early Supreme Court decisions gave Indian tribes powers equal to those of states, though subordinate to Congress. But so far he's biding his time. The tribe is building its fifth bingo hall, a $40 million, 150,000-square-foot structure on a five-acre parcel of land the tribe owns in suburban Coconut Creek. Some observers predict it will be the site of the tribe's first full-fledged casino.

"At a certain point, I will ruffle up my feathers and go ahead and do it, and then let them challenge me," Billie says of gaming expansion, which could increase tribal profits tenfold. "I don't really give a shit about diplomacy in this kind of thing, but this time I thought I would be diplomatic. It's just taking its time. In the meantime, members of the tribe are learning how to manage and manipulate their monies. If we had millions more pouring in, it could be a tremendous burden on me and a lot of other people."

Says Jim Shore, a blind tribal member who serves as lead attorney for the Seminoles: "Our position is that the state already operates or allows class-three gaming on cruise ships and through the lottery, and therefore we should be able to do class-three gaming also."

Both men -- and the tribe's high-priced lobbyists in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. -- are waiting to see if this fall's gubernatorial election represents a decline or an escalation in the state's hostility toward tribal gaming enterprises. Neither of the two front-running candidates has publicly suggested he would welcome a change in policy.

Meanwhile the thick-wristed, bowlegged Billie -- licensed cosmetologist, practicing shaman, self-styled sex symbol, would-be singing star, tall-tale teller, and populist pol -- spends a large part of his days being pursued by interlopers and hangers-on from the outside world who range from well-intended Indianophiles and capitalists without capital to outright scam artists. At a recent tribal council meeting, a fat man in lamentably tight blue jeans rose to the podium and described an 800,000-square-foot "enclosed resort" he wants to build for the tribe on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. "There will be no hidden agendas," the portly fellow promised, going on to identify himself as John Warrior, an "adopted" member of an Oklahoma Indian tribe.

"If you hung around Wayne Huizenga's office, you'd see the same thing," says Pete Gallagher, a long-time member of Billie's entourage. "Everyone wants five minutes with James Billie because everyone wants a piece of the action."

For the past twenty years Billie has led the transformation of the Seminoles from poverty-stricken outcasts to prosperous players in the South Florida economy. His successes have been notable enough to obscure the fact that things could have been much different for the tribe. In the mid-Fifties the Seminoles came within a whisker of losing their reservations and tribal identity through a federal policy known as "termination." Their history, before and after that point, has been defined by uncertainty and tumult. So was Billie's early life.

Born on a chimpanzee farm in Dania 54 years ago, he was nearly murdered within minutes of his birth. His Seminole mother had made the mistake of conceiving him with a white soldier stationed at a nearby military base. The tribe detested half-breeds and often prescribed postpartum drownings. A sympathetic fellow clan member happened to intervene, and Billie lived.

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