Gambling interests are key to the growing influence of this legendary Florida tribe
The Seminoles have won the Second Seminole War.
In 1842, after that seven-year conflict, most members of the tribe who had lived in what then was the Florida Territory left for Oklahoma. Like so many other Native Americans, they didn’t leave their homes by choice.
Twelve years earlier, President Andrew Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act. The government sought to force all tribes onto land west of the Mississippi River. Osceola, leader of the Seminoles in Florida, resisted resettlement. Though the government declared victory over the tribe, about 200 Seminoles fled into the Everglades and never declared defeat.
The roughly 4,200 descendants of those holdouts comprise the Seminole Tribe of Florida. From that mid-19th century redoubt have come six reservations. Roughly 60 percent of tribal members live on the reservations, the largest share in Hollywood and the smallest in Fort Pierce. Tribal members at some point may live on land in Coconut Creek and Polk County that is being held in trust.
From then to now is an astonishing story. The tribe’s rise to become one of the state’s strongest political and economic forces especially will be on display this year.
In the fall, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino will open its $1.5 billion expansion from 500 rooms to more than 1,300. Architects Klai Juba Wald, whose portfolio includes the Mandalay Bay and Luxor hotel/casinos in Las Vegas, designed the Hard Rock’s new tower to resemble back-to-back guitars, complete with strings. The expansion will add, among other things, 30 percent of casino space, a 6,500-seat concert venue and what the tribe calls “a lush, private, over-water cabana enclave” called “the Bora Bora experience.”
As the new hotel opens, the Seminoles also will mark the 40th anniversary of the tribal council’s decision to open a high-stakes bingo hall on the Hollywood reservation south of the Hard Rock. That facility is now the Seminole Classic Casino, and it still makes money. A lot of money.
Tribal leaders such as Chairman James Billie didn’t ask permission in 1979. Even though such gambling was illegal in Florida, they argued that casinos could operate on tribal land outside of state regulations because federal law didn’t prohibit it. Nearly a decade later, after various court challenges, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that set rules for establishing tribal casinos. There are now nearly 500. Total revenue is about $32 billion.
A spokesman said the Seminole Tribe’s highstakes bingo hall and casino—the first tribal gambling operation of its kind in North America—was “the forerunner of the Indian Gaming movement.” He notes that credit also goes to a tribe in California whose case was the first to go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
How successful have the Seminoles been? According to a report in Politico, the tribe’s revenues in 2015 were $2.4 billion, with $2.2 billion coming from gambling—tribe operates six casinos in Florida—and most of the balance from cattle and citrus. It’s all a very long way from when the main Seminole presence in South Florida was alligator wrestling and tax-free cigarette sales.
Before the Seminoles’ bold move four decades ago, gamblers who wanted to make legal bets in South Florida had to frequent horse and dog tracks or jai-alai frontons. The Florida Lottery didn’t start until 1988. The closest casinos were in The Bahamas. The tribe upended the system. A 2004 constitutional amendment, followed by local approvals, allowed pari-mutuel wagering facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties—which for decades had exclusive gambling rights—to offer slot machines.
Pari-mutuels throughout Florida now also can offer poker rooms. Still, the Seminoles have routed the competition. In 2017, the Miami Herald reported that the Hard Rock Casino alone took in more money—$597 million—than the eight South Florida pari-mutuels combined.
Just as those 200 Seminole holdouts defied authorities, so did their descendants in the early gambling days. Broward County Sheriff Bob Butterworth, who went on to be Florida’s attorney general, tried to shut down the highstakes bingo hall. He failed. Florida’s political establishment opposed expansion of gambling beyond state-regulated tracks and frontons. Constitutional amendments to allow destination casinos failed in 1976, 1986 and 1994.
Meanwhile, the Seminoles kept expanding on their land. They added casinos on the Brighton reservation northeast of Lake Okeechobee in Coconut Creek and in Immokalee. In 2004, they opened the Hard Rock Hollywood and Hard Rock Tampa.
Three years later, they bought the whole Hard Rock chain, for $965 million. The company does business in 74 countries, operating 12 casinos, 27 hotels and 185 Hard Rock cafes, which are replete with musical artifacts. According to a 2016 report in Forbes, total revenues including all Hard Rock operations were roughly $5 billion.
Though tribal leaders first thought big on gambling, the non-Seminole they hired 17 years ago has made the tribe big. Casino veteran Jim Allen is CEO of Seminole Gaming and chairman of Hard Rock International, and he wants Hard Rock to expand in the U.S. and abroad, moving toward resorts that don’t necessarily include casinos. However successful those plans to diversify may be, gambling still provides the cash flow. That’s especially true in Florida, because the tribe regularly has outwitted the state and its competitors.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act divides games of chance into three classes. Bingo is in Class II. Slot machines are in Class III, with all the table games, such as blackjack, craps and roulette.
In 2003, Allen created a new machine that had the look of Class III slots but operated under the payout formula of a Class II bingo game. A year later came the constitutional amendment that allowed slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward. Thus were born the race track/casinos, aka“racinos.” As always, though, the tribe pushed for more. The Seminoles operated the supposedly banned table games for a year, risking intervention by federal officials. In 2010, the tribe and state signed a 30-year compact that allows the Seminoles to run table games such as blackjack and baccarat. In return for exclusivity, the Seminoles give the state a percentage of revenue. A tribe spokesman said recent payments have been about $300 million per year.
Casinos and hotels make up the business side of the Seminole Tribe. That’s what most South Floridians see. A short drive inland, however, is the other side.
Back to their roots
On the Brighton reservation, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, is Pemayetv Emahakv (“Our Way”) Charter School. Established in 2007, it seeks to instill in tribal students their language and culture. Where these students once stayed on the reservation every Friday when they attended schools in Okeechobee and Glades counties, they now have their own school. It fills a need that a traditional public school could not and has earned an “A” rating from the state. According to Principal Brian Greseth, the high school graduation rate is roughly 86 percent, which is several points higher than the statewide rate. Last May, Pemayetv Emahakv’s lead fourth-grade teacher, Joy Prescott, was named Florida Teacher of the Year.
Three years ago, the school made its most innovative change, adding an immersion program in the endangered Muscogee Creek language. Parents can enroll students if they are at least four months old and non-verbal. Thirteen are in the program.
As school officials note, 90 percent of the world’s languages will die by the end of the century. Harvard-educated Marcus Briggs- Cloud, who runs the immersion program, said only 40 Creek speakers remain on the Brighton reservation. Many are old. More live in Oklahoma. Briggs- Cloud believes that there are enough speakers at Brighton to staff the immersion program for another 10 years.
Pemayetv Emahakv teaches Creek to all students every day. “The goal for the immersion program,” Greseth said, “is to make students fluent Creek speakers and fluent English speakers. Like most bilingual speakers, they have a base language and translate into their second language. Our desire would be that Creek would be their base language.”
The rigor of the program is impressive, and not just for students. The school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Parents also have obligations. They must attend Creek language classes at the school once a week. They must ensure that the child visits a tribal elder each week for at least an hour to speak the language. They must complete a Creek speaking assignment with their child and send a tape of it to the school.
All current students are in preschool, and the plan is to split the school day between Creek and English by the third grade. From what I observed during a visit last October, the early results are impressive. Immersion students, who are in a separate building from their schoolmates, move quickly from class to class. They work alone and in teams. In some ways, it’s no different from immersion classes at South Florida schools in Spanish or French.
But in the most important way, it’s very different. The Creek language has 19 letters, not 26. There are no everyday spillovers from Creek to English as there are from Spanish to English. No one worries that English, Spanish or French is dying.
When you see these children in their traditional colorful dress speak nothing but the language of their ancestors, you realize that this is the Seminole Tribe. Gambling has brought tribal members money. It pays for tribal services such as Pemayetv Emahakv.
You could call it reparations for decades of broken treaties. In this classroom, however, you truly understand the United States government’s attempt—starting nearly 200 years ago—to eradicate a people and their culture. These children and their teachers are like a threatened species trying to hang on as the world closes in.
A Florida native, Briggs-Cloud received his undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma and his master’s from Harvard. He received Native American Music Awards nominations for his Creek hymn album“Pum Vculvke Vrakkuecetv, ” “To Honor Our Elders.” He also composed the music and led the choir for the canonization liturgy when Kateri Tekakwitha—who was known as Lilly of the Mohawks—in 2012 became the first Native American Saint canonized by the Vatican.
Briggs-Cloud said, “There should be but only one goal in language revitalization endeavors: to grow new fluent speakers. The primary prerequisite for someone working here is to have a lot of love in their heart for the children and for the language. Creating language fluency with love is the goal on which we daily keep our minds and hearts focused.”
The Brighton reservation looks much like a thriving small town, with modern public buildings and well-maintained streets. But the many chickee huts—the traditional Seminole house—separate Brighton from the usual small town. Though Brighton’s casino is small, it is a nearby reminder of what gambling means to the tribe. Ninety percent of the money for tribal services comes from gambling. Tribal members who are at least 25 percent Seminole—Elizabeth Warren would be out of luck—can collect annual dividends from gambling, as Alaskans collect from North Slope oil drilling.
The spokesman said the tribe does not make public the dividend amount. In 1994, however, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that tribal members were getting $1,000 per month. In 2007, the Tampa Tribune reported that every woman, man and child in the Tampa area was receiving $7,500 per month. In that 2016 Forbes article, the figure was $128,000 per year.
Trying to predict the Seminoles’ future is hard, because the tribe consistently has gone its own way. As other tribes were forcing colleges to change their nicknames—the St. John’s Redmen became the Red Storm—the Seminoles doubled down on their long relationship with Florida State University.
In 2005, the tribe issued a public declaration of support for FSU’s use of “Seminoles” and the related logos and images. The university established a scholarship program for tribal students and offers a popular course in Seminole history. It’s part of the Seminoles’ push to raise the number of tribal college graduates, and the rate has been increasing.
“Florida State does not have a mascot,” the university said in a news release. “Instead, we have the honor of calling ourselves ‘Seminoles’ in admiration of the only Native American tribe never conquered by the U.S. Government.”
Indeed, the Seminoles have become conquerors. They have the sort of lobbyist team in Tallahassee that goes with any influential interest group. Yet the tribe remains defined as much by its past as its future. Depending on whether you use Creek or Spanish, “Seminole” could mean “wild men” or “runaway.” Here’s a modern English definition:“the powerful.”