Big Chief Moneybags

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

The paper noted that Seminole gaming operations "appear to be tainted by the very types of problems voters sought to keep out of this state when they defeated constitutional amendments to allow the spread of casinos: inadequate records of large sums of money changing hands, questions about the integrity of some games, lax regulation, and concerns by some law enforcement officials about whether organized crime is involved."

These questions, concerns, and appearances should be "enough to attract the attention of Congress and law enforcement," the Times editorial board opined.

It already has. In Congress, Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington, introduced a bill that would drastically reduce Indian sovereignty. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, has drafted another bill that would exempt substantial portions of land within Indian reservations from tribal rule. And in Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson is threatening to cancel casino gaming compacts with Indians unless they agree to limit their hunting and fishing rights and back away from their efforts to strictly enforce clean-water standards on reservations -- a use of sovereign power granted by Congress a decade ago and immediately seized upon by the Seminoles and a few other tribes.

As Seminole attorney Jim Shore notes, centuries-old rights of Indian self-government are coming under increasing attack both locally and nationally as tribes are flexing their political and economic muscles. The backlash, partly driven by conservative anti-tax fervor, isn't a coincidence, he says: "As long as we were selling trinkets by the roadside, we weren't perceived as a threat. Now there's a lot of grumbling about 'rich Indians.'"

Standing in the firelight near his Mercedes-Benz while he hacks cedar chips from a new dugout canoe, Chief Billie says the anti-Indian hostility is misguided. This year, according to tribal comptroller Jim Boyd, the Seminoles received $16.2 million in federal and state funding from agencies such as the Indian Health Service, Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Agriculture -- a nice chunk of change at first glance, but a pittance when placed in historical and social context. The tribal corporation with its burgeoning cash flow is no different from any other successful corporation, Billie insists. "What's funny is that people who have stock in ITT or Exxon and make a nice dividend -- I don't get bent out of shape about that," Billie explains. "Well, our people have stock in the Seminole Tribe of Florida."

The real Fourth Seminole War is still to come, and members of the tribe will no doubt be looking for a battle-hardened guerrilla leader. Billie says he's considering a touch of hair dye, maybe an eye tuck. He may fly to Durham, North Carolina, to a famous fat farm, drop a few of his 205 pounds, and get back in fighting trim. "I'm waiting for some young buck with bright ideas to step up and take over the herd, as they say," he offers. "But until that happens, I'm staying put. People are gonna have to deal with me."

Meanwhile the chief pilots his favorite helicopter from band practice to casino management meetings to an open-air photo shoot. The photos -- Billie posing in an airboat, Billie poling a dugout canoe -- will be used to create a label for Indian Secret, an all-purpose cleaning product the chief himself invented.

While preening for the camera, Billie dreams out loud about the future of one of the tribe's worst failures: a massive, Wal-Mart-size gaming parlor on the isolated Big Cypress reservation, still listed on some highway maps as the World's Largest Bingo Hall. Today the parking lot is littered with surplus military equipment bought cheap from the federal government. Tomorrow, though, the money might flow again: "What we need is a luxury hotel next door," Billie muses. "People come out here, they want to stay the night." Billie mentions his old acquaintance Donald Trump, who visited the reservation a couple of months ago. Yes, he confirms, the two discussed the prospect of casino gambling. "When the time comes that I need somebody who knows what they're doing, I'd just as soon use Donald. He's got that flair about him that I like. On the other hand, we might manage the whole project ourselves, keep it in the family. That's where we're going in the future, more and more.

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