Opinion: A closer look at the Seminole Tribe

POSTED: 04/17/12 2:52 PM

It is interesting that the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. is interested in buying the Simpson Bay Resort and Marina in Pelican Key. Interesting because the tribe has a history indigenous St. Maarteners ought to feel a connection with. It is also interesting that the Seminoles have extensive experience with operating casinos in the United States. Maybe the most interesting detail of the tribe’s history is this: they are the only tribe of Native American Indians that never surrendered to the brutal attempts by the Unites States government to force them into a peace treaty they did not want. That tells us something about the way the Seminoles operate in today’s business world – they are no pushovers and they will not buy into a deal if they do not like the conditions.
Let’s turn back the hands of time some 170 years, to May 10, 1842. That day the American President John Tyler ordered the end of military actions against the Seminoles, the tribe notes on its website. The government spent $20 million on the war that lasted an astonishing thirty years. All in all, 1,500 American soldiers died, but the US government never managed to sign a peace treaty with the Seminoles.
By 1855, Seminole warriors led by a warrior called Billy Bowlegs attacked a military survey party. The government retaliated by throwing all its resources at the hunt for Bowlegs. After he was arrested, hostilities came to an end.
There were at best a few hundred Seminoles left in Florida by that time; they refused to surrender. Instead, they hid in the swamps and the Everglades of southern Florida. “No chicanery, no offer of cattle, land, liquor or god, nothing could lure the last few from their perches of ambush deep in the wilderness. The US declared the war ended – though no peace treaty was ever signed – and gave up,” the tribe writes on its website.
Today, the Seminole Tribe has built a vast business empire. Here is how the tribe looks at how it got where it is today:
“The opening of the first “smoke shop” (offering discount, tax free tobacco products) in 1977 gave the Seminoles a stable enterprise which continues, even today, to bring substantial revenue into Tribal coffers. The opening of the Tribe’s first high-stake bingo hall in Hollywood, shortly after community activist James Billie’s first election as Tribal Council Chairman, was a national first. The success of Seminole gaming against legal challenges opened the door for dozens of other American Indian tribes to follow suit. Today, gaming is, by far, the number one economic enterprise in all of Indian Country.
The years under James Billie’s direction have seen the Seminole Tribe of Florida mature both politically and financially. The addition of two new reservations (Tampa and Immokalee) brought Seminole federal trust holdings in Florida to more than 90,000 acres. The opening of a new hotel (Sheraton Tampa East), entry into the lucrative citrus market, opening of the new Ahfachkee Indian School, development of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and Kissimmee-Billie Swamp Safari tourist attraction and the expansion of the profitable smoke shops and gaming enterprises have brought the Seminoles closer to their stated goal of self-reliance. In 1992, The Tribe collected a settlement on the land claim it had filed in 1947.
Today, most Tribal members are afforded modern housing and health care. The Seminole Tribe spends over $1 million each year on education, alone, including grants-in-aid to promising Tribal college students and the operation of the Ahfachkee Indian School. Over 300 Tribal members are employed by the Seminole Tribe in dozens of governmental departments, including legal and law enforcement staffs. Dozens of new enterprises, operated by Tribal members, are supported by both the Tribal Council and Board.
As established in the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s constitution, the Tribal Council is the chief governing body, composed of a Chairman, a Vice-Chairman and Council Representatives from each reservation. Today, the Council administers the Seminole Police Department, the Human Resources programs, the Tribal gaming enterprises, citrus groves, the Billie Swamp Safari, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the majority of the Tribe’s cigarette-related enterprises. The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Legal Services Department administers a public defender’s office, Water Resource Management, and the Utilities Department.
The government of the Seminole Tribe of Florida is exempt from all federal or state taxes, although individual Tribal members are liable for the same state and federal taxes as any citizen. The Tribe does not have a court system; legal and criminal matters not resolved on the community level are referred to the proper state or federal authorities. “
Currently, the tribe is operating six casinos in Florida. Among them are the 130,000 square foot Hardrock Hotel and casino in Hollywood (near Miami), and a 90,000 square foot Hardrock Hotel and casino in Tampa. The tribe says on its website that it employs 2,000 non-Indians (on a total of 7,000 employees), that it buys annually $24 million in goods and services from 850 different vendors in Florida and that it contributes $3.5 million in federal payroll taxes to the US treasury.
To illustrate how powerful and successful the tribe is: in 2006 it bought the Hardrock brand with 124 cafes in 45 countries for $1 billion. Tribe elder Henry showed up at a press conference to announce the deal in traditional garb.
And now the Seminole Tribe is at least taking a shot at establishing itself in the Caribbean as well. Whether this will become a reality depends, as Simpson Bay Resort director Mark Miller put it in a letter to timeshare owners, completely of the Wifol union. That is of course a brash statement – everybody knows the good old saying that it takes two to tango. Whether the resort will remain open under the current owners, whether it will be sold to the Seminole tribe, or whether it will simply close down a go to seed, is still an open question.
For the time being we take it that the resort’s assets are too valuable to abandon and that the current owners are playing a power game designed to bring the Wifol and its members to its knees. As far as we can see it now, the Wifol has something in common with the Seminole Tribe: they will never surrender.

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