Chief fought the law, and tribe won

Brawler: He challenged authorities over tribal gambling and endangered species law - and wrestled reptiles just for fun.

March 14, 2004|By Robert Little and Mike Adams | Robert Little and Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - An orphan by age 13 who says he is half-Irish and never knew his father, James E. Billie grew up on tribal lands where living conditions had scarcely improved since the Army stopped trying to exterminate the Seminoles in 1858, after the third of what the tribe calls the Seminole Wars.

When the first Seminole bingo hall in Hollywood opened shortly after Billie's election as chairman in 1979, members of the tribe subsisted largely on tourism-related businesses and tribal payments of $100 a year or less. Today, the Seminoles' rise to wealth through gambling is owed largely to the brash, nose-thumbing style of the man who served as the tribe's chairman for two decades.

From the start, controversy dogged Seminole gambling operations. The Pennsylvania Crime Commission said investors in the tribe's first casino had ties to mobster Meyer Lansky, and the ensuing history is punctuated by legal battles, fixed bingo games and allegations of profit skimming.

But whatever Billie, 59, might have lost in reputation over the years, he more than regained with a chest-beating manner that pushed the boundaries of Indian sovereignty and fueled the expansion of tribal gambling nationwide.

In less than 25 years, tribal gambling has moved from one sheet-metal shed on the Hollywood reservation to hundreds of locations in 28 states. Today, the $15 billion that Indian tribes earn annually from gambling is more than the casino take in Atlantic City, N.J., and all of Nevada.

Prohibited from offering Las Vegas-style slot machines in the tribe's glorified bingo parlors, Billie installed electronic bingo devices that are virtually indistinguishable from slots, down to the rolling cylinders of fruit, but meet the letter of the law with tiny bingo games in a corner of the screen.

Billie made the tribe rich, and his jet-flying, alligator-wrestling lifestyle made him one of the most celebrated personalities in Indian country. He flew around Florida, dressed in traditional clothing and speaking the Seminole language - the successful Indian taking something back from the white man. He released "Alligator Tales," an album of Indian-inspired songs and folk tales performed by Chief Jim Billie, in 1998, and "Seminole Fire" two years later.

He frequently took on state and federal authorities in matters of tribal sovereignty. When the U.S. government barred the tribe from shipping in gambling machines, Billie had the parts delivered and assembled them on the reservations. Within days of winning a court battle to reclaim a Seminole burial ground, the tribe was grading the Tampa site for a new casino.

At his trial in 1987 for shooting and eating a panther near the Everglades, Billie argued that endangered species laws do not apply on reservations. He was acquitted in state court, and federal charges were later dropped.

Asked later how the big cat tasted, Billie reportedly said, "like a cross between a manatee and a bald eagle."

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