Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
August 17, 2001
No one kept tabs on tribe's expenses
Maybe we're to blame. A little press scrutiny might had stanched this mess back when it was a minor embarrassment, before financial chaos and scandal and an FBI investigation consumed the Seminoles.
If the circumstances had been altered, if this were a town instead of a pseudo-sovereign Indian tribe, reporters might have looked harder, sooner.
Reporters surely would have noticed if the mayor and city commissioners of a town the size of El Portal were harboring multimillion-dollar slush funds to lavish on their constituents.
But Tribal Chairman James Billie's $16 million discretionary fund seemed to have slipped right by us. Until it was too late. We didn't notice that the tribal council members had $5.1 million each to spend according to their individual whims.
Discretionary spending ``for the tribe" ranged from repairing constituents' automobiles or paying for their lawn service, to Miami Heat playoff tickets ($18,447) to chartering a jet ($10,413.25) to fly some tribe members to the Daytona 500 in February. Another $22,896 bought tickets for the race.
That's the kind of reckless and arbitrary spending by elected officials that usually gets the press riled. But we paid scant attention to these elected officials. Even though several, in the course of spreading the wealth, seemed to be spending the wealth, too.
If the mayor of, say, Bal Harbour or Pembroke Park, each with more residents than the Seminole Tribe's 2,800 members, had purchased an eight-passenger Gulfstream jet once owned by King Hussein of Jordan, TV reporters would have lined up at the airport for their 6 o'clock stand-ups. But this remarkable tribal extravagance went unremarked. Until scandal broke.
None of us seemed to notice that James Billie, until he was finally ousted in May after 22 years as tribal chairman, had become the highest-paid elected official in the state, making $330,000 a year (about three times what the governor makes). If we had paid more attention, as the Seminole's gambling profits spun out of control, we might have saved Billie from himself, not to mention the FBI.
Those mundane, nitpicking, irritating, often embarrassing budget stories that newspaper reporters crank out tend to keep elected officials from self-destructive excess. Or from using public money to grease romantic dalliance. We weren't there for Chief Billie.
Maybe we were seduced by Billie's homespun charisma. The highest-paid public official in the state still built chickee huts, wrote folk songs, sang in a country band and wrestled alligators. Last year, a gator bit off a piece of the chief's finger. Minus one digit, Billie possessed an earthy authenticity other politicians only dream about as they don new flannel shirts and well-pressed jeans.
We just liked Billie. Besides, he lifted his tribe out of utter poverty. Just 25 years ago, with income based on wrestling gators and selling trinkets, the tribe made less than $500,000 a year. Chief Billie opened cigarette joints, bingo halls and casinos, fended off the state and raised the annual gross to more than $300 million.
All that money overwhelmed a tribal council originally designed to govern a poor, unsophisticated, agrarian culture. And as they wrestled with those gushing millions, and all the attendant temptations, a negligent media acted as if the Seminoles were still grappling with gators.
August 23, 2001
A sovereign nation
Fred Grimm's otherwise informative Aug. 17 column No one kept tabs on tribal expenses goes astray by calling the Seminole Tribe of Florida "psuedo-sovereign." In no treaty, in no agreement and under no arrangement did any indigenous nation of the Western Hemisphere surrender its sovereignty. The courts have ruled that Indian nations are sovereign.
Therefore the Seminole Tribe is a sovereign nation surrounded by a larger nation that has a treaty relationship and an extralegal trust relationship with them. Whether The Herald chooses to report on the fiduciary responsibilities of the elected officials of the tribe is, of course, a choice the paper should make.
But do not compare the Seminole Tribe's existence to that of a municipality. I doubt El Portal or Bal Harbour have treaties with the United States of America, nor has either city engaged in conflict with the United States to defend its sovereignty and its land base. The Seminole Tribe has.
State Executive Director
American Indian Movement of Florida
Do American newspapers usually report on the internal politics of sovereign nations such as Canada and Mexico? No.
Grimm's implication that the Seminole Tribe is corrupt is unproven, of course. There could be legitimate explanations for most of the highlighted expenditures. City, state, and national legislators routinely go on political junkets that cost more than $10,000, and newspapers don't investigate them.
Moreover, Grimm ignores the possibility of a cultural difference he doesn't understand. Perhaps the Seminoles accept the idea of sharing wealth with friends. Perhaps it isn't a crime in the Seminole government, even if it might be in an Anglo government.
I suspect the Seminole's tribal council was designed to deal with the modern world's complex legal, economic, and social issues, not "a poor, unsophisticated, agrarian culture." The council was formed in the middle of last century, not hundreds of years ago. It's probably older than the state legislature of Hawaii, which joined the Union in 1959. Would anyone think of calling Hawaii "a poor, unsophisticated, agrarian culture" and implying it isn't capable of governing itself?
The facts about tribal sovereignty
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