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  Seminole gambling
The series
Day one:
Half a billion dollars a year is pouring into the Seminoles' casinos, but some people are profiting much more than others.

Day two:While every Seminole now is getting handsome dividends from gambling revenues, millions in federal aid continue to go to the tribe.

Seminole gambling

helicopter
One of three helicopters James Billie uses to travel from his home in the Everglades to tribal headquarters in Hollywood. (Times photos: MIKE PEASE)

Despite the growth of the Seminoles' business interests, Billie still pursues his singing career. His latest album is called Hail to the Chief.

Dressed in tight black jeans, cowboy boots and traditional patchwork Seminole shirt, Billie entertained a sparse crowd in St. Petersburg's Vinoy Park last year with his blend of country and honky-tonk. At one point in the concert he wryly noted the contrast between his modest singing career and the luxuries enjoyed as Seminole leader. Gesturing to a small card table set up just to the right of the stage with a stack of cassettes, he quipped: "Buy some of my tapes. I need to fill my helicopter up with gas."

Yet it was easy for those in the audience that day to admire Billie's pluck as he recounted growing up in the South years before the civil-rights movement.

"I was born on a chimp farm in Dania," he said. The chimp farm was a roadside attraction where many Seminoles in Hollywood worked.

Billie's mother, Agnes Billie, was a full-blooded Seminole. His father was an Irish-American naval pilot who moved on before his son was born, according to a 1995 biography of Billie called Chief: Champion of the Everglades, written by Barbara Oeffner.

In Oeffner's book, Billie's grandfather is depicted as wanting to kill him as an infant because of his mixed lineage. Mixed bloods, Oeffner writes, were once thought to possess evil spirits.

Billie's mixed blood has been seized on at times by critics within the tribe. Three years ago, a group of dissidents distributed an anonymous flier that attacked Billie's administration and his control of the tribe's newspaper, the Seminole Tribune.

The Tribune "only tells us what people in power want us to know," the flier said. "Has the Tribune told you about how if two people with equal credentials apply for a job with the Tribe, one being white the other being native, the white applicant gets the job? Which half of JB (James Billie)
. . . is doing the hiring?"

In Oeffner's biography, Billie says he was raised on the Hollywood and Big Cypress reservations by his grandmother and Betty Mae Jumper, the only woman to be elected chairman of the Seminole tribe.

Billie's high school education was gained at the Haskell Institute, a boarding school in Kansas for Indians. Billie graduated in 1964, when he was 20.

In 1966, he enlisted in the Army and served two tours in Vietnam. The war was a turning point in Billie's life and helped mold his view of politics.

"Although my grandfathers were involved in politics, it really wasn't until I was in Vietnam that I began to see things that made sense about the tribe," he told Florida Trend magazine in 1986. "I could see that there was no difference between the field of combat, where there were bullets flying, and politics, where you use words. It's all manipulation, how to outdo the other guy, how to get what you want."

On returning from Vietnam, Billie jumped from job to job. He worked in the lawn-care business, received his state cosmetology license, wrestled alligators at a roadside attraction on the Hollywood reservation. He got married.

And he waited for the chance to run for political office. It finally came in 1979 when Howard Tommie decided not to seek a third term as chairman. Tommie had just signed a lucrative contract with Seminole Management Associates, a group of non-Seminoles who had been hired to run the tribe's first high-stakes bingo hall, in Hollywood.

Billie defeated two other candidates seeking the chairmanship with a campaign that pledged to improve the tribe's health services and living conditions. One of his first actions as chairman was to renegotiate the bingo hall's management contract. No longer would the management company get more of the profits than the Seminoles; now the Seminoles would get 55 percent and the managers 45.

Bill Fitzsimmons, a Pompano Beach real-estate broker who has done business with the Seminoles, describes Billie as a leader who is determined to leave a proud legacy.

"He's straight and blunt," Fitzsimmons said. "He told me time and time again the tribe comes first. He helps the ones who want to work. I got the impression he wants to leave a legacy that he brought the tribe out of poverty. He's like a daddy to all of them."

Billie takes pride in the tribe's increasing financial stability. "I am basically a self-taught money maker," he said. "Throw me in a damn ditch and I'll make sure money comes in to the tribe."

The story continues

ribbon
James Billie stands ready for a ribbon-cutting at the Ah-Tha-Thi-Ki Museum at the Big Cypress reservation in August. From left are David Cypress of the Big Cypress Council; Billy L. Cypress, executive director of the museum; Max Osceola, Hollywood Council; Billie; Mitchell Cypress, Big Cypress Board; and the Rev. Frank Billie. (Times photos: MIKE PEASE)

 

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