Seminole Hold 'Em

After nightfall, western Hollywood goes dark and an otherwise featureless horizon comes to be dominated, suddenly, by the Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, the phosphorescent glow of its turrets visible for miles in every direction.

It's around nightfall too that traffic begins to snarl around the main entrance at Seminole Way. Before long, cars are idling to the north, at Lucky Street. Then the quagmire reaches south, to where State Route 441 meets Stirling Road; and before midnight, gridlock arrives at intersections west and east. From the sky, the casino complex glitters gold, all those automobile brake lights gleaming like so many rubies.

The Seminoles have been throwing the same party for so many nights now that none of their guests seem to notice that their Native American hosts have vanished. The guests pay their compliments to the slot machines, buckets of quarters disappearing over blurry hours. Outside, in the neon-lined Seminole Paradise, revelers pay the bouncer a $20 cover or the bartender a ten spot for a vodka and Red Bull.

Even before February 8, when Anna Nicole Smith let loose her dying gasp, the Seminole Hard Rock had established itself as one of those South Florida locations where things happen. Those happenings aren't always good — Anna Nicole's was the most famous but not the only recent case of a mysterious death. And the most intriguing happenings are behind the scenes, where Seminole Tribal Council members meet with hot-shot lawyers and executives to plot the empire's next frontier.

Lately, the news is all good for the Seminole Tribe. In the past six weeks alone, the tribe has settled a nearly billion-dollar lawsuit, closed on the nearly billion-dollar acquisition of Hard Rock International, and announced plans to build the state's largest hotel-casino complex on 44 acres in Coconut Creek.

The casinos occupy as central a role in the tribe's collective economic vitality as the General Motors plant did for the people of Flint, Michigan — though the Seminoles don't actually have to work at their own factory. None of the tribe's 3,300 members need lift a finger except on the one day every month that his or her $7,000 dividend check arrives in the mail — one for every member of the family.

The tribe — certainly among the most prosperous of the nation's 561 recognized Indian tribes — has built an economic juggernaut by exploiting federal policies that gave it advantages over any American corporation. For example, the tribe enjoys an immunity from lawsuits, and its casinos don't have to pay state taxes. Through its status as a sovereign state, it can define civil rights, civil liberties, and the rules of government access as it sees fit.

Since the American government lacks the resources to enforce its laws on Indian land, tribal governments like the Seminoles' are under no particular obligation to adopt policies that don't suit the tribal business.

Gary Anders, an Arizona State economics professor who has written several articles about Indian gaming, speaks of the Seminoles with academic awe: "Think about how we could possibly construct an entity that would have the best possible advantage," he says. "It looks a lot like an Indian tribe with a casino near a major metropolitan market."

But a tribe with a major American corporation in its bulging portfolio must realize that with its colossal success comes the threat of backlash. Recent events suggest the Seminoles have begun to recognize this hazard — but only up to a point. The same generation of Indians who once knew the ravages of poverty must now consider the perils of greed.

The price of image is a hard thing to quantify, but judging by the Freddy Howard episode, it's worth at least $260,000 to the Seminole Tribe.

On August 29, Howard swiped a Player's Club card through the Seminole Hard Rock Casino's "Swipe and Win" kiosk, and the computer screen declared him a "progressive winner."

A 53-year-old Spanish-speaking voice-over specialist from Sunny Isles, Howard was suddenly the toast of the casino. He got his own impromptu party, topped off with an oversized check for $259,945.

Then, just hours later, the casino took Howard's jackpot away. Officials ascribed his victory to a computer glitch and told him he would not be paid.

Howard saw the Seminoles as cheats — and after Howard's story hit the TV news, so did much of South Florida. Critics took to the radio airwaves and opinion pages of South Florida newspapers, and though few dared utter it, the episode gave new traction to an ugly old term: "Indian giver."

Then, on September 18, while the story was still gaining momentum, the casino did a complete 180, announcing that Howard would get every penny of the jackpot.

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Thomas Francis