Native American Entrepreneur Chief James Billie: Epitomizes Value of Perseverance and Business Vision

Neal Asbury opened the show by questioning how former President Bill Clinton, with his history of indiscretions, can belittle the Tea Party movement. “It’s like Alice down the Rabbit Hole –everything is topsy turvy. Down is up and up is down. Except Alice is not in Wonderland, the American people are,” proposed Neal Asbury.

Asbury noted that the perfect example of this is former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel quitting so he can run for the Mayor of Chicago. Asbury is bemused by the fact that despite his power in Washington, back in Chicago Emanuel is not even a front runner, and is in fact, way down on the list of mayoral candidates. “He’s learning that the Chicago way does not work in Washington or in the rest of America, and it might not even work anymore in Chicago,” said Asbury.

Asbury noted that Emanuel, like economic advisor Larry Summers, who is returning to Harvard, is “getting out of Dodge” before the mid-term elections sink the Democrats. “It would be a catastrophe for the Democrats in Illinois if Republican Mark Kirk takes over President Obama’s former senate seat.”

Joining the show for the entire hour was Seminole Chief James Billie, a former tribal activist who as Tribal Council Chairman is credited with turning the Tribe’s first high-stake bingo hall in Hollywood into a gaming operation that today, is by far the number one economic enterprise in all of Indian Country. Thanks to his gutsy management, fighting a variety of legal challenges, Billie opened the door for dozens of other American Indian tribes to follow suit with their own gaming operations which bring multi-billion dollars into the tribal coffers.

Though Billie is modest and nonchalant in conversation, it belies a business savvy and perseverance that today, thanks to his gaming success, brings each Seminole Tribe member $120,000 a year.

Born in the Chimpanzee Farm (a Florida tourist attraction) in 1944, Billie has spent his life trying to restore the economic prosperity once enjoyed by the Seminole Tribe — a name bestowed upon a confederation of many tribes that once roamed through the South and up to Canada during the mid-1800s. Growing up he watched his people despair as poverty gripped the Tribe. But he knew that although most of their original lands were snatched by greedy US land speculators, the Seminoles still owned a great of land as a result of various treaties. More importantly, in 1956 the Seminoles and other Tribes (depending on their treaties) were granted sovereignty to form their own nations. This was the spark that lead to the transformation of the Seminole and other Tribes to establish today’s US gaming empire.

Billie recognized that as their own nation, the Seminoles could conduct businesses that were off limits to most states. In 1979, with the help of a $1,000,000 loan, Billie helped the Seminoles open a bingo hall. It was so successful that the entire $1,000,000 was paid back the next year.

“The money came in, but the people in my Tribe lost heart because they didn’t think they could reclaim the power and strength they once had in the 1880s. They lived in poverty and they were afraid of the government and the bureaucracy,” recalls Billie.

Billie was not intimidated and decided he would fight to have a casino built on Seminole lands. He networked with experts in Washington and elsewhere that helped show him the ropes for taking on the government. This ultimately led to an historic legal battle that took Billie and his team to the Supreme Court, where they ultimately prevailed.

“This is a proud country. I learned that if you want something you have to ask for it or challenge people for it. That’s how you get what you want. I’m not a lawyer, I’m a PhD (Post Hole Digger), but I learned how to get things done,” said Billie.

After Billie helped the Seminoles open their first casino in 1988/89 in a modest building, he watched the money pour in. He recognized that the potential was unlimited for more casinos and sought people ranging from Donald Trump to Jimmy Buffet to help create a new type of casino. These opportunities were non-starters until Billie was able to acquire the Hard Rock brand. Now his Hard Rock casinos have become iconic as the most popular gaming venues.

Not to merely rest on his laurels, Billie today is an enthusiastic entrepreneur, investing in everything from casino consulting and aircraft manufacturing, to Indian huts and a beef brokerage business that he hopes to take globally. His most ambitious project is Seminole Springs, the brand for an artesian well that can pump out 600,000 gallons of water a day. With two partners, he hopes to create a line of five-gallon, 1/2 liter, one-liter and 12 ounce sized water bottle products.

Billie faces two big challenges this year and next: winning back his chairmanship of the Tribe, and initiating some program to reverse the poor health of many tribal members who are experiencing a high incidence of diabetes due to poor eating habits.

“I’ve helped my Tribe bring in lots of revenue, but that’s only part of my job. I need to make sure that this new found financial success can be translated into a better life. They need to learn how to use their money wisely,” concluded Billie.

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