Seminole Indian Chairman James Billie lost a finger three years ago to a six-foot alligator. But the wounds from his brutal feud with fellow chieftains over the tribe's $400 million in annual gambling revenue hurt worse.
On Feb. 27, the Seminole governing council impeached the 57-year-old former alligator wrestler for a long list of alleged misdeeds, including charges of diverting $20.3 million in Seminole funds to buy a hotel on the tribe's behalf in Nicaragua, expense-account fraud, sexual harassment, and misusing funds to buy a Gulfstream V jet. The tribe is suing him in federal court to try to recoup some of the monies allegedly misspent. Billie denies acting illegally but admits to living large. "I was hanging around Donald Trump and Steve Wynn," he recalls wistfully.
Billie's saga isn't as unusual as you might think. Flush with more than $13 billion annually in gambling revenues, Native Americans from Connecticut to California are battling over the spoils of a 20-year gusher of casino cash. Power struggles are raging between pro- and anticasino factions, while competing tribal leaders fight over how new riches are spent. Many Indians feel that too much money flows to outside management companies or tribal elders' pockets, rather than to schools or health clinics. "Now there's a lot more money to fight about," says a senior official at the National Indian Gaming Commission.
GROWING JACKPOT. Since a 1981 federal court ruling upheld the Seminoles' right to run high-stakes bingo on its reservations, 198 of the roughly 350 federally recognized Indian tribes in the lower 48 states have piled into the gambling business. At least 39 tribes generate more than $100 million each in gambling revenues per year. As gambling has taken off, median annual household income for native Americans has also steadily risen: from $19,900 in 1990 to $31,800 in 2000, according to the Census Bureau.
The proceeds are unequally distributed, however. Some tribes have struck gold, while others still struggle to escape generations of poverty. In October, 2002, a dissident band of Kickapoo Indians in Texas occupied their own Lucky Eagle Casino. In a sidewalk vote outside, members of the 500-member Kickapoo tribe ousted longtime Chairman Raul Garza and the tribal council over allegations that they allowed outside casino managers to misspend at least $10 million in profits.
Three members of Northern California's Buena Vista Rancheria Band of Me-Wuk Indians, a tribe of four people, are fighting a federal injunction blocking construction of a $150 million casino on their reservation. The injunction was obtained by the Buena Vista's fourth member.
HIT-OR-MISS JUSTICE. Not even America's richest Indian nation -- the 677-member Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut, who generate an estimated $1.6 million in gambling money per Pequot -- is exempt from the infighting. Four Pequots are suing the tribal council in tribal court over a $710 million expansion plan for the Foxwoods Resort Casino.
Because tribes are considered sovereign nations under U.S. law, Washington lacks jurisdiction unless the Native American tribes agree to give it to Uncle Sam, which they sometimes do in order to sue each other. But without that authority, the U.S. government can neither mandate redistribution of tribal profits nor settle intratribal disputes. So many cases are handled by tribal courts, which can result in inconsistent rulings. That makes resolving conflicts a tricky, hit-or-miss proposition.
Now the problem could get worse. Dozens more tribes are seeking gambling permits, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. Of California's 109 tribes, 52 operate casinos, and 10 more will open operations this year. In January, the Navajo nation, which had long resisted gambling, approved slot machines on a reservation near Phoenix. Here's one good bet: More Indian infighting is on the way. By Brian Grow in Hollywood, Fla.