Chief Walking Eagle

Robb Tiller went from rags to riches and right back after 15 years spinning deals around the Seminole

About 15 minutes into the meeting, Carl Baxley, a heavyset former councilman, approaches the microphone. "In the last meeting, we found out from Roger that you guys are getting paid $4,000 a week," Baxley says in his kettle-drum baritone. "Then I found out, that's take-home pay." Someone in the crowd whistles in astonishment. "My question is, how in the hell do you justify paying yourselves those kind of salaries?" The assembled tribal members cheer and clap as the councilmen maintain their poker faces.

The rancor indicates how quickly the tribe has had to come to terms with its financial juggernaut. When you see the Seminole tribe's garish, recently opened Hard Rock gambling temples in Hollywood or Tampa, it's hard to imagine that 25 years ago, the tribe was running nothing more than jury-rigged bingo operations in Hollywood that then-Chairman Howard Tommie began in 1971.

Back in the early 1980s, then-Broward County Sheriff Bob Butterworth tried to shut down the bingo operations, alleging that their existence violated state antigambling laws. The Seminole sued, saying they were a sovereign nation, and in 1981, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the tribe's claim. Ever since, gaming has filled the war chest.

The relics of Robb Tiller's life are packed inside old trucks and a bus. "People go, 'Robb, you've got to be a billionaire,'" he says. Hardly. But he's still working on it.
The relics of Robb Tiller's life are packed inside old trucks and a bus. "People go, 'Robb, you've got to be a billionaire,'" he says. Hardly. But he's still working on it.
"What really hurt the worst is when James said I was nothing, I just kind of hung around, like beggin' for scrap food."
"What really hurt the worst is when James said I was nothing, I just kind of hung around, like beggin' for scrap food."

But income was modest in the early years, and the Seminole needed investors, so Tiller volunteered. The first project for which Tiller hunted money was a 25,000-square-foot bingo hall in Auburn, Washington, that the Seminole tribe helped start for the Muckleshoot tribe. It opened in 1987 and survives today, still offering a $2 senior discount four nights a week.

Keeping up with James Billie brought its perils. When it appeared that Congress might impinge on Indian gaming in 1983, Tiller and Billie lugged a gator to Washington, D.C., where they played the poor-Indian card for legislators. The tribal chairman burst into a Senate gathering wearing a loincloth and tackled the gator while Tiller made overtures to every politician he met about what a damned shame it was that the Indians had to rassle alligators to make a living -- even as the Protestants, Catholics, and Jews played bingo. The pair got into real trouble later when Tiller suggested that a Holiday Inn maid get something from their bathroom... while the beast was loose on the tile. They had to talk their way out of charges that they transported a protected species across state lines.

Billie generally confirms the story -- then adds that Tiller spun a lot of tales about him. "By the time he got through with me, women would be drooling. I thought, what the fuck are they looking at? My dick's only two inches, not eight feet long. God damn."

The two men grew to be chums, running buddies. Tiller dubbed Billie "Paw Paw," as one might call a grandfather. Billie dubbed Tiller "Chief Walking Eagle," because he was too full of shit to fly. This is what passed for affection.

"You have to realize, James Billie is a lot like Robb Tiller," says Jim Kincade, a Phoenix businessman who has worked on and off with Tiller for 30 years. "I sat back and watched them butt heads. It was a handful -- and energy, they both had so much energy."

The take-no-shit tales are multitudinous, but Billie disputes a Tiller assertion that the chairman shot down a plane full of cocaine. "I never did that," he says. Rather, a plane landed on a stretch of reservation road, prompting Billie to call the cops, who in trying to cripple the craft blew apart the pilot's head. "I saw it," Billie says. "Cheese all over the damned place." Still, the wider picture that emerged during the heady, fast-growing days was that normal rules of engagement didn't apply to the Seminole, least of all to Billie, who confiscated the plane and flew it around the country. "If I followed all the rules," he says, "they would never have let me do bingo."

In late 1983, Billie slew a panther on the Big Cypress reservation with Tiller and a couple of other friends along. The following morning, Billie recalls, wildlife officials came to question witnesses. While others slinked out, Tiller raked the yard and played dumb. "Nobody ever questioned Robb Tiller, and he was right there," Billie says. It was a feat to avoid the shitstorm that followed. Billie fought what turned into a protracted legal battle that became a nationwide cause célèbre for Native Americans concerned about their tribal sovereignty. Time, the Economist, and the New York Times all covered the case before a jury in 1987 acquitted Billie, saying the state never proved that the dead big cat was definitely a panther.

"I guess we were kind of bizarre," Tiller muses. "Me holding the flashlight while he killed the panther ain't normal. OK, it ain't normal. Landing on the street in an airplane and having the police block traffic, it ain't normal. Taking an alligator to the United States Senate floor, it ain't normal."

In 1985, Tiller set about gathering investors for bingo halls in Red Rock, Oklahoma, for the Otoe-Missouri tribe and in Colusa, California, for the Wintun tribe. He also began looking for folks to put money into a South Florida Seminole bingo hall. The night it opened, in 1987, Big Cypress Million Dollar Bingo gave away $900,000, according to an Associated Press account. "If it hadn't been for Robb, those bingo halls never would have happened," Kincade says. Tiller's role generally was to get the people in place and get out of the way, but Kincade remembers that he also had a flair for gonzo promotions. One night, Tiller promised a freezer full of beef to a bingo winner, and then, when the game was over, led a live cow into the hall.

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