I remember driving down to the Everglades in the ’60s with my best friend and her parents to visit a Seminole Indian camp. My friend’s father, a Fort Myers native, knew some of the Seminoles and had even learned their language. I’d like to report that I seized the chance to meet some of the last indigenous people in the United States still living on their native land. But in fact, my friend and I took one look at the scruffy campground, where a few pigs were rooting around in the dirt and some skinny dogs lolled by a smoking fire, and retreated to the car to read Archie comic books and gripe about how long it was taking her parents to visit with those people in the frumpy patchwork outfits.
For years, if they thought about the Seminoles at all, most Floridians probably shared my impressions of that raggedy remnant of the Indian tribes who for thousands of years roamed this state. But as Peter B. Gallagher reports in this issue, there was always more to the Seminoles than that, and the tribe has changed dramatically in recent years. In 1979, under the leadership of charismatic, controversial Chief Jim Billie-who was ousted from power several years ago-the tribe won the right to operate casino gambling on its reservations, opening the door to what’s now a $15 billion-a-year national Indian gaming industry. Today, the tribe-which in 1967 had fewer than 2,000 members and only $38 in its treasury-rakes in $600-700 million a year, placing it among the largest (and most influential) businesses in Florida. Every man, woman and child receives a dividend of $3,500 a month; and most live in handsome homes, with luxury cars in the driveway and a host of perks, from skyboxes at sports events to funds for whatever college they choose to attend.
For 22 years, Chief Billie ruled supreme, glorying in the spotlight, spending millions on tribal improvements and business schemes and dispensing cash and favors to his grateful subjects. In his colorful patchwork jacket, tight black jeans and snakeskin boots, he piloted his $9 million jet (once owned by Ferdinand Marcos) in daredevil style, touching down all over the world to promote his businesses and Seminole culture. And he took a wicked glee in the once downtrodden Indians being courted by celebrities from Donald Trump to cash-strapped politicians. When Clinton fund raiser Terence McAuliffe asked for a donation, Billie made him wrestle an alligator first.
Gallagher, a former award-winning St. Petersburg Times reporter, was at the center of the whirlwind, working for nearly 16 years as Billie’s right-hand man and boon companion. Officially the tribe’s
director of special projects, he did everything from producing music festivals to writing for the Seminole Tribune. And he was there, when, in the oldest story in the book, the tribe’s newfound fortune became its downfall, as members turned against each other and the runaway spending helped topple Billie from power.
Today, the chief who was once the toast of Indians all over the country is ostracized from his tribe and supporting himself by building chickees in Naples and other South Florida cities. But money continues to pour into the tribe, especially after the recent construction of flashy new casinos and hotels in Tampa and Hollywood. Yet as Gallagher reports, many Seminoles struggle with the same social problems that plague impoverished communities-alcohol and drug addiction, high drop-out rates, broken families and isolation from mainstream America. Worse, says Gallagher, their culture is rapidly disappearing. Those who remember the old ways are dying off, and the tribe itself is in danger of vanishing, as intermarriage dilutes its bloodlines.
"People say that you can be rich and unhappy," Gallagher says. "I’d always say, how can that be? But I saw it happen. Even though they had a lot of money, they weren’t happy. They were getting away from old traditions and beliefs. They lost their legends and they let their language go."
Clearly, there’s nothing noble about poverty, and no Seminole would renounce his new wealth for the old ways. Still, something has been lost in all the gain. Listen to Betty Mae Jumper, a former chairman of the tribe, recalling life on the old reservation: "There was nothing here. It was wilderness. All trees and palmetto. But it was high and dry.good land." Most of all, she says, she remembers "the quiet. We used to sit outside and you could hear the hawks and owls and whippoorwills. We would sit around a campfire and listen to the birds and frogs. The peaceful sounds. That’s what I miss the most."