Big Chief Moneybags

Seminole Indian chief James Billie, dressed in traditional multicolored jersey and snakeskin boots, is dropping fast from two miles above the earth toward his target -- a windblown airport runway in Tallahassee. The man sitting next to him in the copilot's seat, an old friend of mixed Creek Indian and white lineage, has grown accustomed to Billie's 200-mile-per-hour nosedives, but a third occupant of the airplane is nervously grabbing at a seat belt.

The eight-seat Turbocommander that Billie flies today looks sleek and fast but actually represents a certain fiscal modesty. Until he sold it last year, Billie was in the habit of roaming the skies in a $9 million customized jet once owned by Ferdinand Marcos. One of the last trips he took led from the Seminoles' Big Cypress reservation in western Broward to Nashville and on to Canada's Northwest Territories. He went there with members of his country music band to play a gig for some Inuit natives above the Arctic Circle and returned home with his hung-over entourage declaring the northern Indians a bunch of vodka-swilling drunks.

"The whole trip was like a hallucination," recalls band member John Stacey. "We're coming back from the show, and we gotta drop one guy off in St. Pete, but first we gotta see another man about an owl. So we go to Cross City, Florida. We radioed ahead, landed, and sat around and drank beer 'til the guy got there. The guy shows up with a live owl in a box, and two or three salted turkey carcasses. The feet and the feathers were still on the turkeys -- I figured it was for some kind of ceremonial thing. I'm layin' these turkey carcasses all over my amp and guitar and I'm thinking, you're not really supposed to just grab an owl and put him in a plane and take off. But that's how it always is traveling with James."

Safe on the runway, Billie and pals park the plane and switch to a minivan, then head south, cell phones blazing as the towns of Panacea and Sopchoppy slip past and St. George Island appears off the Gulf Coast. In a few hours, Tallahassee will host a legislative reception for the Governor's Council on Indian Affairs. Billie may or may not attend, and no one will know what he intends to do until a few minutes before the event begins. It's an old guerrilla tactic from his days in Vietnam, he says -- keep your battle plans secret until they absolutely have to be divulged.

In Apalachicola the chief spends twenty minutes looking at a bed-and-breakfast the tribe might buy and also scouts a possible location for a new Seminole airboat concession. Then it's time for a "snack" involving three dozen raw oysters, a vast pan of soft-shell crabs, salad, gumbo, Shiner Boch beer, and several servings of bread.

The cell phones continue to burble. Elderly diners at neighboring tables edge away from Billie's long-haired posse. The conversation rifles dizzily through a dozen or more of the tribe's more recent business ventures: the Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress reservation -- an ecotourism park that promises to turn a profit within the next three years; the tribe's turtle-farming venture on the Brighton reservation; its rope factory and fledgling aircraft manufacturing company; pepper and citrus farms; a 3000-acre commer-cial hunting preserve west of Fort Lauderdale that just cleared $14,000 in a single weekend; commercial leases on cellular phone towers and RV parks; a condiment known as Seminole Swamp Seasoning, soon to appear on Winn-Dixie supermarket shelves statewide; "Chief's Jerky," an all-natural beef stick bearing the likeness of Osceola, the nineteenth-century Seminole war chief; an $80 million land purchase in Central Florida that Billie and the tribal council are actively exploring.

Billie expresses a certain ambivalence about an upcoming trip to Tibet to meet with a botanist. The meeting is connected to the top-secret launch of a new herbal concoction called "River of Grass." He shows more enthusiasm for a planned expedition to Minnesota to look at a machine capable of turning whole, feathered chickens and wheat into dog and alligator food.

"The idea is to spread out into other ventures, so if the bingo halls get taken out from under us, we won't be left in a 1960s situation," Billie says. "We didn't get where we are by being conserva-tive, and we're not gonna start now. So we're trying a lot of different things as fast as we can. Some of 'em fizzle, some of 'em gonna make money. That's what it's about: money, independence. Self-determination."

Smoke shops and tribal bingo halls in Tampa, Immokalee, Brighton, and Hollywood continue to account for 80 to 90 percent of the Seminoles' newfound wealth. Gaming revenues alone are projected at $497 million this year and now translate into $1500 monthly dividend checks for each of the 2440 enrolled members of the tribe.

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Sean Rowe