The man who would be chief: James Billie invented the concept of the Indian casino and turned the Seminoles from an impoverished tribe to one flush with cash. For his efforts he was booted out.


He was a Seminole Indian who grew up in the Everglades. He slept in the swamp under a blanket of pine needles and killed gators with his bare hands. He fought for his country in Vietnam. Back in the Everglades he killed a panther in the Big Cypress Indian Reservation, then skinned and ate it. When he was arrested and tried for killing an endangered species, he was asked what panther meat tasted like. "It was a cross between bald eagle and Florida manatee," Chief James E. Billie supposedly said. He was acquitted.


Billie invented gambling on Indian reservations. Under his leadership the Seminoles became the first American tribe to operate a high-stakes gambling casino on a reservation. From 1979 to 2001 he was chairman of the Seminole Tribal Council for the six reservations of Florida. Before he became a council member the Seminoles had an annual budget of $11,000. Today their budget exceeds $1.5 billion, which enabled them to buy the Hard Rock International chain in 2006 from the Rank Group PLC for $965 million. The Seminoles now control Hard Rock franchises in 47 countries on six continents. Every member of the 3,200-person Seminole tribe--adult and child alike--receives $120,000 a year from gambling profits. With their $10,000-a-month stipend, even the poorest Seminoles are so wealthy the tribe can no longer find a single member to wrestle alligators for tourists; it had to hold a gator-wrestling audition--and only a few white men showed up.

In 2003 the Seminole Tribal Council voted Billie off the council and banished him from the Hollywood, Florida reservation and Seminole public life. Today there is no mention of Billie in the tribal newspaper, The Seminole Tribune, and no sign of him in the seven tribal casinos. At the age of 63 he has been written out of Seminole history.

After his banishment Billie retreated into exile to the small backwater reservation of Brighton on the northwest bank of Lake Okeechobee, a flat, swampy land of scrub, turf farms, fishing camps, orange groves, sugar plantations and cattle ranches. He still lives there, in a doublewide trailer with his third wife and two small children, and makes his living building ancestral Seminole homes called chickees. In Brighton Billie works and waits and plots his return to his rightful place as chief of the Florida Seminoles, the only Indian tribe never to sign a treaty with the U.S. government, which is why they are called the Unconquered.

Florida State Road 441 heads south from Fort Lauderdale to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood. It is a typical state highway lined with strip malls of adult video stores and pawnbrokers willing to buy guns, gold and diamonds from people with bad credit. Car dealers like Don's Deals on Wheels offer to buy cars from gamblers who have had a bad night at the tables. The casino itself is an anomaly off the highway, a big garish structure on beautifully landscaped grounds. Across the street is the First American Tobacco Shop, a salmon-colored building on the site where the original trailer first sold tobacco in the early 1970s. The reservation, which is southwest of the casino, is also a contradiction. It has a new government building and police station, a senior center, baseball diamonds and parks with swings for children. But there are also run-down trailers on Josie Billie Avenue and depressing 1950s concrete HUD projects, which sit across the street from new Mediterranean-style houses. No matter whether the homes are mansions or trailers, they all have the requisite luxury cars--Range Rovers, Mercedeses and Lexuses--out front, as well as campers and fishing boats.


There is not much of the noble savage about Chief Billie. He's more a hip, caustic, cocky, white guy than a stoic, deferential Indian. He's funny, profane, smart, bawdy. "PLAYBOY? I hope you don't expect me to pose naked. I got a little dick" were the first words he ever spoke to me. White people in Florida like Billie, maybe even more than the Seminoles do. Dan Wisher, a white businessman who advised Billie on computers and investments when Billie was still the council chairman, says, "James Billie has the biggest heart. He loves his people."

Charles Helseth, a white Okeechobee another Billie confidant. Rob Saunooke and his father, Osley, both lawyers, are almost worshipful toward him. A lot of Billie's white friends call him Chief as a sign of respect, not condescension.

Billie doesn't look like a Frederic Remington Indian chief. He doesn't have the mahogany-color skin or the Mount Rushmore features. He looks like a migrant worker from the sugarcane fields. He looks more Latin or black than Indian. "They all look black to me," says a Cherokee of his Seminole brothers. Which is understandable, since the Seminoles are not a homogeneous tribe. They are a mix of Indians and Spanish sailors driven south from the Carolinas and Georgia by European settlers. Unlike most other American Indians, the Seminoles had no intercourse with the white man in Florida in the 18th century. As a result, they retained their ancestral ways longer than most tribes. They spoke a Miccosukee dialect and never learned English. That changed in the early 1800s when a growing number of black slaves escaped from their plantations in the Carolinas and Georgia and fled south into the Everglades. The Seminoles welcomed the runaway slaves as brothers and incorporated o them into the tribe. In 1821, with Spain ceding Florida to the U.S., white Americans from the South staked their claim on Seminole land. Two more Seminole wars would now be fought, not only to capture runaway slaves but also to relocate the Indians to a reservation in Oklahoma. Eventually, by the late 1800s, a few thousand Seminoles were forcibly relocated. Only 300 or so remained in the Everglades, maintaining their ancestral way of life.

"Sure, we fought the white man," says Billie, "because we didn't want them stealing our black pussy." He laughs. "Wouldn't you?" Then he says seriously, "The word Seminole isn't even an Indian word. It comes from the Spanish word cimarrones, which means 'runaways.'"

Billie pulls his flatbed truck into the parking lot of a diner, where he is going to meet his four-man chickee crew for breakfast. "I didn't intend to kill the panther," he tells me. "I'd gone into the swamp to show some Spanish guys how to catch gators. We were in a truck, shining a light to catch a gator's red eyes. The light shone on these emerald-green eyes I thought were a deer's. Me, being macho, I went about 10 feet from the panther. I shined the light on his eyes, and he looked like he was going to pounce on me. At the time, in 1983, I had been living in the swamp, training under a medicine man. He told me panther hide was precious. It gave you strength in war. Its claws were good for acupuncture. Its tail would give you an erection if you tickled your balls with it. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.