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James Billie

from A Place To Remember

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James Billie, WGBH

Alligators, bingo, bones, casinos, elections, Sam Jones, sovereignty, Tarzan, Vietnam.

James Billie is running for re-election — again. The first time he ran for chairman of the Seminole tribe of Florida was in 1979; he won, and spent 27 of the next 40 years in power.

He has his enemies. Make as many decisions as Chairman Billie did, and you’d have them, too. They find a way to kick him out. He finds a way to get voted back in. And then the cycle repeats itself. He blames his most recent ousting on the millenials. He frequently compares politicians to alligators, which he spent decades wrestling.

Today, Billie lives on the Brighton Reservation, a 36,000-acre parcel east of Lake Okeechobee. Approaching from the south, a visitor drives past miles of sugarcane; if she is visiting during harvest season, the fields will be full of fire. Crop dusters sweep nearly vertical to the ground as birds look on. At some point, the GPS stops working. When he is finally found watching the Game Show Network in the kitchen of his airy chickee, James Billie is surprised that the GPS works as well as it does.

The rules for running a re-election campaign are simple: you know me. I was there when you were down. I was the one who lifted you up.

James Billie was born in 1944 at the Hollywood Chimpanzee Farm, a tourist attraction in Dania. He likes to say he was raised with the monkeys. Tarzan was his childhood hero. He’d beat his chest and cry “AHHHH!” But not even his dog came. He dreamed of lions and elephants, but what he had instead were alligators. The babies would catch his fishing line and he’d try to get them off. One time, he came home with a gator baby still attached to his hand. 

In 1965, he flunked out of college, and enlisted in the military. He was promptly sent to Vietnam, where he would do two tours. Billie was a point man: his job was to keep his eyes open so the other guys would be safe. He saw how people lived in the villages and it reminded him of home. When he had days off, he’d jump on a C-141 and fly back. He started to see his community with new eyes. He started to think about how he might help it move forward.

Living in a swamp, there was only so far you could go in the world of business. Before the tribe organized in 1957, Seminoles went in to town for work as builders, mechanics and parking attendants. Federal recognition brought jobs to the reservation — which, Billie came to believe, was the problem. There were jobs, but little opportunity for growth. By the 1970s, Seminole on the reservations in Hollywood, Brighton and Big Cypress were living in poverty.

Meanwhile, a few enterprising individuals had started building chickee huts for people in Miami and Delray. These chickee millionaires were making a killing. Soon, Billie was one of them. In Miami, he met a lot of Jewish businessmen. They were always asking why the Seminole didn’t try this or that. “Aren’t you a sovereign nation?” they asked. Billie shrugged. He didn’t really know what “sovereign” meant.

What he did know was that he wanted to be chairman — the highest tribal office. After a stint on the council, he won the seat in 1979. He knew the problems the tribe faced; now he needed to figure out how to solve them. 

Answers have a way of presenting themselves for James Billie. On his first day in office, the comptroller slapped a stack of papers down on his desk. It was a business plan for bingo. The former chairman had been looking into it, but he’d thrown in his lot with tax-free tobacco instead. What the hell was this? Billie thought. He’d seen people in Oklahoma playing bingo in 1950 with corn cobs. That’s all he knew of bingo.

He turned a few pages. Something about sovereignty — that damn word again. He flipped to the back. Something about $3 million dollars. Now that sounded interesting. He met with the suits. He learned that sovereignty meant self-rule, and self-rule meant you determined the laws of your own land. You could, for instance, decide that gaming was legal, and build all manner of establishments to support it. Billie decided a bingo operation was worth a try. He pushed it through the council even though they didn’t want it. He’d taken office in June. He signed the contract in July. The Hollywood casino opened in December.

The first day, cars lined up along Route 441. It was unbelievable. They had to turn some people away because they could only seat so many. Billie, who was never a numbers guy and claims to be terrible at bingo, used to stand on the mezzanine with his accountant, who could predict with astonishing accuracy how much they’d pull in each night. It was a lot. They hit $3 million in six months. [need to confirm]

It was only the beginning. Business opportunities flooded into the tribe. More bingo halls opened. Soon, they expanded into casinos. When council members took too long to decide on something — which, according to Billie, was pretty much always — he decided for them. “Pulling a Castro,” he called it. He describes himself during those years as a benevolent dictator.

Like Castro, Billie was a persona non grata with the U.S. government. He was hounded by the IRS and investigated by the FBI — though they never managed to pin anything on him. Indian gaming continued, as did James Billie’s reign. To neutralize the federal threat, he diversified the tribe’s holdings, buying cattle in Nicaragua and farmland in Florida. When he was first elected in 1979, the tribe had a $500,000 budget; when he left office for the first time in 2001, the budget was $650 million. Monthly dividends were given to every Seminole man, woman, and child.

By 2004, the Seminole tribe owned and operated six casinos, including two licensed under the Hard Rock brand. Two years later, the tribe acquired Hard Rock International for $965 million. Over the next decade, their business empire would expand into 75 countries worldwide. There are Hard Rock cafes on almost every continent.

At one point, James Billie decided to go visit them, let everyone know who was chief. He was in London, when he ran into someone he never expected to see: Carol Cypress, one of his childhood buddies. After London, he went to Barcelona — and there she was again. The Seminoles were no longer hanging around the res; they had gone global.

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Outside James Billie’s residence, Florida

When James Billie was a boy living on the Big Cypress Reservation, some white people had come by wanting to know where Sam Jones’ Old Town was. Billie had never heard of Sam Jones, and he said he didn’t know. Later, he told his grandpa about it. His grandpa warned him not to speak the name again.

It was Indian custom. You did not talk about powerful people once they had crossed over. You never knew what they would be like on the other side. What was good might be rotten, and they might want to come back so bad they’d take over your soul if they had to. 

Years later, Billie would discover that Sam Jones was a very powerful person indeed. He was reading a history book when the name came up again. He learned that Sam Jones was what the soldiers called an Indian named Abiaki, who used to show up at their fort selling fresh fish. He was small and humble, and all the soldiers liked him. He appeared harmless. But days after he visited, something around the fort would blow up. He’d been spying on them the whole time. And he was not a lowly fish-seller, but high chief and medicine man. Billie was tickled. He asked his friend, the historian Patsy West, to find out more. 

Billie and West would discover that Abiaki was the reason there were Indians in Florida. When the U.S. government had tried to remove them, he had refused. He fought the U.S. military at every turn and never surrendered. Those who followed him survived. White men called his land in Big Cypress the “Devil’s Garden.”

Billie believes in superstitions, but he also believes that people need to know Abiaki. For years, he has been on a campaign to reclaim the name — or names, as the case may be. In 2016, County Road 833 was renamed Sam Jones Trail at his request. He christened the tribe’s $45 million jet “Arpeika,” a cognomen.  In 2003, he commissioned an 12-foot bronze statue of Abiaka for the Billie Swamp Safari. There is another in the park that now occupies Pine Island Ridge, Abiaki’s stronghold during the Second Seminole War. And a third can be found at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. The state-of-the-art facility was another of Billie’s projects. It is home to over 180,000 artifacts that tell the story of the Seminole experience in Florida. He deliberately built it near the Devil’s Garden, where Abiaki lived and died.

Billie hadn’t known where Sam Jones’ Old Town was when the tourists asked. Now he does. A couple miles east of Big Cypress Reservation, there used to be a big pine tree hammock way out in the sawgrass. That was where Abiaki was buried. It had been plowed up for agriculture before anyone knew better; today it’s an orange grove.

When they started digging, someone called Billie in the middle of the night. The caller said they’d found bones — did he want to check it out? They were always finding bones. Billie never followed up. He wishes to this day that he had.

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Alligator, Florida Everglades

Twenty years ago, James Billie was wrestling an alligator when he got bit. A friend suggested it might be time to hang it up. Billie, in his 50s at the time, was insulted. But his friend persisted. “As we get older,” the friend said, “that razor-sharp edge of movement isn’t so sharp anymore. Even though it’s very minute, we start slipping. James,” he said, “you’re slipping.”

Bille told him to fuck off. Then, eight years ago, an alligator bit off the ring finger of his right hand. The same friend said, I told you so. The guys at Billie Swamp Safari, where the incident occurred, named the alligator Digit.

There was tape of the accident. A Canadian television crew was filming at the safari that day. Billie watched the tape to find out what happened. He had failed to secure the gator’s jaw; when he went grab it, he put his hand right into the creature’s mouth. Stupid, he thought.

But it didn’t stop him. That kind of accident wasn’t uncommon. If anything, a missing finger just adds to an alligator wrestler’s mystique. Then, six years ago, he had a stroke. It took him five years just to raise his left arm. His alligator-wrestling days were behind him, as were his airplane-flying days and his guitar-playing days. Once a Grammy-nominated singer, his voice conked out, too. It all made him want to kick god’s ass. He thought about getting a stem cell treatment, but he is 74 years old. It didn’t seem worth it. 

Now, he sits at home, watching the Game Show Network and planning his comeback. He has his concerns. He knows that people like their leaders strong, majestic. His bum arm and bad legs aren’t helping. When he runs, he will have to look like he’s beating this thing. He will have to get up there arrogant — even if he doesn’t feel like it.

It can get him down, but then he thinks of Abiaki, who, he might remind you, was chief until his dying day. Sure, Abiaki got senile and there are funny stories about that — but he was in charge. Billie too, would like to be chief until he gets old and dies.

He may be crap at bingo, but Billie has been known to get lucky. He is not ashamed of reaching out to any spirit passing by. And they frequently stop and listen.

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Outside James Billie's dwelling

Thirty years ago, when he was trying to get Indians off the reservation and out into the world, he had an idea. He’d buy a piece of land somewhere and turn it into a reservation. It would be Indian land, but it would be outside Indian country. He was looking for an industrial town, somewhere with job opportunity. In the end, he purchased a 20-30 acre parcel in Tampa. But he ran into trouble with local government trying to put the land into trust.

Then, in the middle of the night, the phone rang. People are always calling Billie in the middle of the night. The caller had heard he was having a hard time. But he had news for him. Right in the middle of Tampa, they were building a parking lot for the federal building. “James,” the caller said, “they found your bones.” The grounds were home to an old Indian burial site.

Billie and his attorney flew to Tampa the next morning to request an injunction. They got it. And a couple of months later, Billie got his reservation.

That was 30-something years ago. A Hard Rock casino now occupies that location. It’s one of the highest-grossing casinos in the world. They are still digging up bones all over Tampa. In fact, Billie is in his kitchen watching the Game Show Network and entertaining visitors with stories of his illustrious career when a friend calls. He wants to talk about the bones that have recently been discovered around a construction project on the waterfront. He wants to talk strategy. One of the tribe’s medicine men is over there right now. Billie is quiet.

“You there?” the friend asks.

“I’m swallowing my whiskey,” Billie says, water bottle in hand. “The chairman,” he finally says, “should probably be there.” For the moment, that is not him. He doesn’t know where he fits in. He tells the friend to keep him posted.

When he gets off the phone, Billie explains the matter to his visitors. He takes another sip of water and turns back to the Game Show Network, where a woman is holding an answer card that reads “Tarzan.” It’s a good thing, I’m not chief,” he says. “I’d own Tampa.”

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