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When Fortune Smiles (or not)

Tina Osceola’s family has been in Southwest Florida longer than most, but when she started school, she was a mystery to her first-grade classmates at Saint Ann Catholic School in Naples. She used funny words, and instead of spending weekends at sleepovers and parties, she hopped in the family car with her parents and brother and headed off to perform powwow dances, cook fry bread and sell Seminole crafts to help pay for her tuition.

Even then, she was teaching and working to preserve her Seminole culture.

Now 41 and the historic resources officer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Osceola recalls her young friends’ confusion. "I was using words that no one knew," she says. "They’d never seen patchwork, and they thought Indians wore feathers and lived in tepees."

Today, Osceola’s daughter doesn’t have to dance or sell crafts to help pay for school, but she faces a new kind of stereotype—one that has come with the tribe’s success in its gaming enterprises.

"There’s a new lens that the media puts on tribes, and it’s through this gaming lens," her mother says. "My daughter’s 14, and she gets attacked by kids her own age because her purse, her earrings, her clothing—and this is a Naples, Florida, private school; figure out how this makes sense—they make fun of her because it must have been bought with ‘Indian money.’"

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has built a gaming empire with its casinos and the acquisition of Hard Rock Café International, placing it on a global stage in the resort, entertainment and gaming industries. In less than three decades, it has dramatically changed the fortunes of the tribe and its members who now find themselves in new territory—having to defend their success, their privacy and their sovereignty.

A Winning Bet

Osceola was born into an Independent Seminole family, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public administration. But her experience isn’t typical.

When she was born in the late 1960s, tourists still stopped at Seminole and Miccosukee villages of clustered, palm-thatched chickees and roadside attractions to watch Indian men wrestle alligators and women sell crafts. Impoverished and reliant on federal and charitable support, the two tribes had relied on tourism as an important source of income since the late 19th century. The two tribes are culturally but not politically related.

"Faced with decades of grinding poverty, Seminoles had long been looking for ways to build their non-governmental income," says Jessica Cattelino, an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA and author of High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty.

Property taxes, a revenue source for other governments, are not available to Indians, whose reservations are on federal land. However, she says, "Indian tribes, as governments, had the authority to regulate economic activities on reservation land." They discovered that this gave them a market advantage in cigarette sales, and leaders began to look for other opportunities.

"Highly taxed and regulated activities like cigarettes, gambling and gasoline are areas where Indian tribes have a particular competitive advantage, because they can tax and regulate them themselves on their own reservation land," says Cattelino.

In 1979, the Seminole Tribe of Florida became the first tribe to offer high-stakes bingo, which eventually proved very profitable. Seminole Casino operations now exist at Hollywood, Coconut Creek, Brighton, Big Cypress and Immokalee. In 2004, the tribe opened Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino locations in Tampa and Hollywood, and in December 2006 came the announcement that it was acquiring the Hard Rock holdings internationally for $965 million.

For 2007, the eight facilities of Florida’s two gaming tribes—the Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukee Tribe Indians of Florida—pulled in an estimated $1.6 billion in revenue, according to the annual Indian Gaming Industry Report by Alan Meister, an economist with Analysis Group.

The Seminole’s 3,300 tribal members share in the Tribe’s revenues, of which about 90 percent comes from gaming, says Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner. The Tribe and its members no longer reveal their finances, but past reports indicate a per capita distribution of $42,000 annually in 2003, and $7,000 per month per person in 2007. Unconfirmed reports have suggested in excess of $9,500 per person since the Hard Rock acquisition.

Cattelino won’t comment on the amount each tribal member receives. "How to decide what’s enough and what’s too much to have or own is a question that Seminoles did not have to ask for a long time," she says, citing a Tribe member.

"What I will say is that Seminoles, in a single generation, have gone from widespread poverty to a massive shift in economic fortune, and this has allowed them and also forced them to ask tough questions that go to the very heart of dilemmas that we see every day in the United States: What is a just society? How is wealth best distributed? How much of it should go to individuals versus government programs? How do you encourage people to value hard work?" she says.


In the late 1990s and early 2000, a federal investigation put Tribal leaders and their alleged misuse of Tribal money in the public spotlight. Former long-time chairman James Billie was ousted, accused of sexual harassment and of misusing his power and the tribe’s money. He was acquitted by the government, but the investigations unveiled spectacular expenditures by council members, including tens of millions of dollars on luxuries, homes and cars. Those investigations and additional questions about alleged misuse of tribal money resurfaced in a series of South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports in 2007.

Osceola blames those reports for creating that "gaming lens" and for fueling a new form of discrimination. Cars with Seminole license plates have been keyed or broken into. Strangers have invaded Indians’ yards to shoot photos through their windows. And many tribe members have been subject to price gouging.

"The fear of being victimized is very prevalent, and it’s very new," says Osceola. She doesn’t accept the argument that the reports were aimed only at Tribe leaders. "You’re classifying them as Seminoles. The intent is to generalize all Seminoles [as] guilty of abuse of power, unbridled access to wealth," she says. "Those articles started this wave of distrust of media from a Tribal standpoint and fueled that criminal element."

The political clout that Seminoles can now afford is viewed with suspicion, even as politicians and organizations come to the Tribe with hat in hand, asking for financial support.

Although the Florida Seminoles have found success in gaming, other tribes might make just enough to pay the power bills for their schools. Yet justices and legislators ignorant of culture and sovereignty issues are making decisions that, through precedent, affect all tribes, she argues.

"We’ve been pigeonholed and romanticized in so many ways that if we don’t fit that mold or image, then we’re letting someone down. ‘These poor Indians, they’re forgetting their culture, they’re forgetting who they are. They’re getting spa treatments and driving Hummers and wearing Louis Vuitton,’" says Osceola. "No one’s talking about what we’re doing about language, historic and cultural preservation. They’re not talking about what we’re doing in schools, what we’re doing with healthcare programs, what we’re doing to defeat diabetes."

New Opportunities

As she talks, Osceola guides her SUV along back roads to the Big Cypress Reservation, which lies some 17 miles north of Alligator Alley. She’s interrupted every few minutes by her chirping PDA.

As historic resources officer and executive director of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, she stays busy. She works frequently with other tribes, and the museum is due for an inspection by the American Association of Museums—it’s slated to become the first tribally owned museum ever accredited by the AAM. She also coordinated the Indian American Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., for Barack Obama’s big night in January.

A few houses and other structures appear, marking our arrival at Big Cypress. We’re on the West Boundary Road, where most of the tourist attractions are consolidated, including Billie Swamp Safari, a relatively new and boomingly popular Motocross course, and the museum.

She turns down a road by the airstrip to point out the Tribe’s hangar, where they keep a couple of planes and a couple of helicopters used for transportation, forestry management and other work, she says.

Nearby are a new wastewater-treatment facility and a new road to a pending residential area to help accommodate the growing population, she explains.

Just up the road looms the gleaming new public safety facility, where the Tribe’s fire, police, EMS, emergency operations center and mail operations are headquartered. Osceola leads a cultural training program to teach the non-Indian emergency workers—which most are—how to treat tribal patients without violating any taboos.

Houses range from contemporary, two-story homes to older cement-block homes—holdovers from past decades, when most people lived in housing provided by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. Most houses have chickees for cooking, gatherings or storage.

"What you see going up now are paid for through tribal dollars, or by tribal members who have secured a loan on their own," says Osceola. Since residents don’t own reservation property, the Bureau of Indian Affairs helps them get mortgages. "They don’t put up any money, but they secure it so you’re able to qualify for that money," she says.

As with Osceola’s daughter, the Tribe foots the bill for education, and parents can choose their children’s school—public or private, on or off reservation. Tribal monitors follow each child’s progress in collaboration with the parents and teachers.

Medical clinics treat Tribe members, and preventive and wellness programs are emphasized, especially to address diseases with high rates among Indians, such as type 2 diabetes. Weight-loss programs are in place, and "every time you turn around, they’re offering free blood tests," says Osceola.

Some lessons have come hard. Seminoles receive a portion of their allocated money when they turned 18, but some deaths and other tragedies led the Council to change the rules; drug and alcohol testing and financial counseling are required for those about to turn 18.

A Renaissance

Osceola scoffs at suggestions that wealth is threatening the Tribe’s culture. In fact, "One of the things we’re seeing is a renaissance in Seminole artistic expression," she says, recalling a former museum employee who was able to quit work to focus on her passion for sewing patchwork.

"There is no reason to assume that wealth presents more of a problem for cultural preservation than poverty," says Cattelino. "Many Seminoles talk about the mid-20th century as a period when they felt threats to their culture because they were experiencing unprecedented poverty." They had to work long hours or multiple jobs just to survive. Now, she adds, "They focus their time and energies more on cultural matters that matter to them."

This freedom is pumping fresh artistic interpretation into traditional arts, says Osceola. Throughout history, Seminole seamstresses used whatever fabrics and materials were available, from bartered and cast-off fabrics to more costly bric-a-brac. Now, one might find gold lamé, Elvis Presley prints or Hello Kitty fabric mixed into patchwork.

"Collectors will say, ‘They’re ruining the patchwork.’ And we’re like, ‘What do you mean? It’s our patchwork. It’s Seminole,’" says Osceola.

The museum and curatorial building embody the Tribe’s efforts to preserve its culture and history. It employs a team of archeologists, museum professionals and a conservator and has labs for preserving and conserving artifacts. In its vault is its growing collection of artifacts, including antique big shirts (tunics), Seminole dolls that once were hawked in roadside attractions, ancient canoes and a prized original painting of Chief Micanopy, which "took three fiscal years to be able to purchase," Osceola says.

The striking museum building opened in 1997, marking the Tribe’s 40th anniversary. Not many visitors make the trek here, but many who do are European tourists, who have a great interest in American Indians. A German-language movie about famed Seminole warrior Osceola, which Tina and other museum officials find quite amusing, plays in one area of the museum.

Into the Future

Today, while many companies and governments are slashing capital projects and payrolls, the Seminole Tribe is still building and hiring.

In Immokalee, construction is under way to double the size of the casino, update the existing restaurant and add a deli and two lounges, one with a stage for live entertainment, says spokesman Bitner.

The casino employs 500, "including 125 dealers and supervisors recently hired for the introduction of blackjack there," says Bitner. Hundreds more will be added with the expansion.

Immokalee advocates see the casino as a boon to this little town, which has lost much of its agricultural base in recent years.

When it opened in the early 1990s, "for the first time in Immokalee, [people] realized this could be a tourist destination point," says Fred Thomas, a community activist and former executive director of the Collier County Housing Authority. The casino brings thousands of people to the town, and business leaders are eager to tap that market.

"Not everyone in the family gambles, so we need to create a situation here in Immokalee: ‘For those of you who are not gambling, take advantage of the airboat rides at Lake Trafford, take advantage of the ecotours at such and such a place,’" says Immokalee Chamber of Commerce executive director Dick Rice.

Thomas and Rice anticipate a high-rise hotel next to the casino and elaborate amenities. "That whole complex, as we understand at this point, [will include] a hotel, golf course, water theme park and so forth," says Rice.

The Class III Gaming Dispute

None of that is part of the current expansion, says Bitner. Those plans—and the future of the Tribe’s gaming operations—are tied to whether it will continue Class III, "Las Vegas-style" gaming. Class III allows gamblers to bet against the house in slot machines, blackjack, high-stakes poker and baccarat. (It started Class III gaming in 2008, after Meister’s latest report.)

As a result of the federal 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Pact, a tribe may offer only games that are already legal in a state unless it negotiates a compact and revenue sharing with the state. This is the root of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s current dispute with the State of Florida. The Tribe negotiated a compact with Gov. Charlie Crist and began Class III games, which received federal approval, but the Florida Speaker of the House sued, saying the governor couldn’t negotiate such a deal without the legislature. It went to the Supreme Court, which determined the state couldn’t enter a compact without congressional approval. The Tribe will seek that approval this spring, says Bitner. Meanwhile, the Tribe is continuing its Class III games.

"The Tribe has said to the government, as part of the negotiations, that they plan major expansions of four casinos, including hotels, and Immokalee is one," he says. It’s wrapped up with negotiations with the compact, which will be taken up during upcoming session of legislature."

The Tribe also has become more engaged in community and philanthropic activities. The casino is the first Diamond Member of the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce, ponying up $2,500 for annual membership, says Rice. The Tribe contributes to causes ranging from the American Red Cross and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to local scholarships, among others.

"Gaming revenues have given them clout and visibility that is unprecedented," says Cattelino.

"It is premature to estimate the long-term effect of casinos," she says, "but what many Seminoles have said is that even though money poses problems and challenges, they would much rather have those than the problems and challenges of poverty."

For Osceola’s daughter and others, these new challenges reinforce a sense of identity, says her mother.

"When she goes to bed at night and when she wakes up in the morning, she’s knows ‘I’m a Seminole, and there are issues so far beyond those petty little girls. I’ve got a life, and I’ve got a mission, and I’ve got a purpose, and it’s because I’m Seminole that I have all that.’"

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