'High Stakes': How gaming money has reinforced American Indian culture
Anthropologist's book explores new wealth's influence on Seminole tribe
By Meg Sullivan September 17, 2008 Category: Research
In 2006, the Seminole Tribe of Florida stunned the world with its $965 million purchase of Hard Rock International, an empire of restaurants, performance venues, hotels and casinos in 45 countries.
And while the Everglades tribe would later move into even more lucrative forms of gaming, the purchase remains a high-water mark for the Seminoles, who are often credited with opening the door to Indian gaming by becoming the first tribe to introduce high-stakes bingo, in 1979.
"Our ancestors sold Manhattan for trinkets," a tribal official said at the time of the Hard Rock deal. "Today, with the acquisition of the Hard Rock Cafe, we're going to buy Manhattan back one hamburger at a time."
Now, in the first book to be written on the gaming-era Seminoles, UCLA anthropologist Jessica R. Cattelino shows what gaming wealth has really meant for the tribe and its members, often considered among the most traditional of American Indians.
Richly detailed and painstakingly researched, "High Stakes: Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty" (Duke University Press) shows how gaming has affected everything from traditional arts to housing, setting the Seminoles on a collision course with some of their closest held values — and allowing them to more fully realize others.
"'High Stakes' is fundamentally a story of Seminoles' complex, sometimes futile, but often extraordinarily successful efforts to maintain politically and culturally distinct values under new economic conditions," Cattelino writes.
Cattelino was granted unprecedented access to conduct fieldwork on the Seminoles' six reservations, where she spent a year interviewing more than 100 people, attending everything from tribal council meetings to birthday parties, and learning about the texture of everyday life.
She found that the Seminoles' estimated $1 billion in annual gaming proceeds has opened the door to a wealth of opportunities unimaginable to most Americans, let alone the 3,300-member tribe that as recently as a generation ago had no access to higher education and was still living in small palm-frond huts, or chickees.
"Expensive new vehicles fill tribal parking lots and driveways, some young people wear designer clothing ... renovations are underway and it is not uncommon to see tribal members with Rolex watches and high-end electronics," Cattelino writes.
Will Wealth Swallow Tradition?
But the newfound wealth isn't all about fancy cars and bling. In addition to generous monthly distributions to individuals, gaming proceeds have allowed the tribe to erect an enviable social safety net that includes universal health care, financial support for unlimited education, full senior care and generous reservation amenities, from gyms to community centers.
"Tribal members often will say that Seminoles take care of their elders and children," Cattelino says. "It doesn't mean that these aren't other people's values, but they are Seminole values, and gaming has provided Seminoles with the resources to make good on those values."
Yet such material advances have sometimes put traditional ways at risk. Seminole crafts, such as patchwork clothing, wood-carving and beadwork, and demonstrations of Seminole skills like alligator-wrestling were once mainstays of tribal employment. But few Seminoles now make a living from these pursuits and fewer young people seem to be learning the skills, Cattelino found. In fact, a Florida roadside attraction was forced to advertise eight years ago for a non-Seminole alligator wrestler because it could no longer find a Seminole man to fill the position.
"Since gaming young men enjoy unprecedented educational, career and income-earning options, and hardly anyone seems to disapprove of boys' choices to pursue safer and more lucrative paths," Cattelino writes.
In other ways, however, prosperity has allowed the Seminoles to revive traditions and celebrate their culture in previously unimaginable ways, Cattelino found. A new market for high-end Seminole crafts has emerged, fueled by the collecting potential of the Seminoles themselves. Local schools now incorporate traditional practices and native-language instruction into their curricula. New positions as cultural educators, tribal museum officials or language instructors have opened up.
And many of these new employment opportunities make allowances for traditional practices that once put Seminoles at odds with non-Seminole employers. The newly flush tribal government and Seminole-owned businesses provide time off for the tribal holidays, events and mourning rituals that can sometimes run up to four weeks.
Gaming has also enabled Seminoles to return to traditional tribal forms of housing and community organization, which had been disrupted for more than 40 years. Since the mid-1960s, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, had pushed tribal members into individual, cement-block homes arranged without regard to extended family ties. But the new wealth has allowed them to take control of tribal housing, ushering in a return of native construction styles, traditional structural elements and housing arrangements that cluster residents according to Seminole matrilineal clans, Cattelino found.
And even in Seminole consumption patterns — which appear more mainstream American than American Indian — Cattelino found telling signs of distinctive tribal ways, with tribal members often using their new wealth to reinforce traditional patterns of relatedness, especially matrilineal clan obligations.
"It may still be the same iPod Nano, but your mother's brother is as likely as your dad to buy it for you," Cattelino says.
Building Power, Consolidating Gains
Throughout the book, Seminoles express great pride in their ability to provide for themselves and in their tribe's increased political power and savvy.
Tribal members, who for generations were unable to use tribal lands — which are held in federal trust — as collateral to secure loans, for example, or who faced banks reluctant to lend to American Indians, no longer face such obstacles. The new tribal wealth has allowed Seminole individuals and the tribe itself to effectively escape the long cycle of dependency on the BIA and federal assistance programs, Cattelino writes.
"Now we don't have to wait on anyone anymore, and I think to me that means a whole lot, to be able to do something ourselves instead of having to wait on people," one Seminole tells her.
And the tribe isn't able just to take care of itself. Once the recipient of charity, the Seminoles are now active in philanthropy, having contributed to Hurricane Katrina relief, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and numerous local causes.
In addition, the Seminoles' ongoing legal maneuvers to protect and define the rights of sovereign tribes in the context of gaming have ended up having applications for other forms of economic development, from small reservation gas stations to high-finance venture capital initiatives — not only for them but for other tribes as well.
"Legal teams are put in place to defend gaming rights, and the legal theories spill over and the legal infrastructure is in place to pursue other issues," Cattelino says. "The effect has reverberations across Indian country."
Yet the Seminoles are painfully aware of the prospect that gaming — "the new buffalo" — might disappear just as abruptly as the Plains animal that originally sustained so many American Indians, Cattelino writes. "High Stakes" returns frequently to the Seminoles' efforts to diversify into sugarcane and citrus production, cattle raising, meatpacking, airplane manufacturing, eco-tourism, turtle farming and other business ventures as protection against such a possibility.
Cattelino also gives voice to concerns of parents struggling to motivate children who have never experienced lean times for a future beyond gaming.
"One woman described her children as acting like 'princesses and kings,' and she found it necessary to remind them that she grew up in a chickee without electricity, drank soda only once or twice a month and hardly ever ate ice cream," Cattelino says. "In response, the children oscillated between rolling their eyes as children do and recognizing the value of the sacrifices that their ancestors made to hold onto a distinct way of life."
'It Isn't Who We Are'
The Seminoles have had their share of gaming-era scandals, including the termination of a longtime tribal chairman in 2003. While the official charges involved sexual harassment, Cattelino suggests that the chairman's controversial use of the tribe's airplane — purchased from Jordan's King Hussein — and other incidents of mismanaged resource distribution were what really stirred the tribe's ire.
But aside from a few isolated issues, the tribe has managed to steer clear of more common gaming scandals, thanks largely to the fact that in 2000 they bought out contracts with outside gaming operators and avoided possible connections with organized crime.
"Everybody expected tribal gaming to be a wide open field for organized crime," Cattelino writes, "but the evidence just isn't there."
Most Seminoles maintain "an arm's length distance" from gambling, Cattelino reports, and they do not claim it — as some Native Americans do — to be a natural extension of traditional tribal games.
"This is a money maker," one Seminole tells Cattelino. "It isn't who we are."
Still, that's not the way non-Seminoles regard tribe members. Time and again, Seminoles recount painful encounters over the tribe's new wealth. Strangers approach Seminoles to ask how much money they make, and tribally-identified vehicles have been subject to vandalism.
"I often heard Seminoles lament that no one bothered them so long as they were poor and selling trinkets to tourists, but once they started making money they came under harsh public scrutiny and were subject to new stereotypes and resentments from non-Indians," Cattelino writes.
Cattelino is donating all proceeds from the book to the Seminole museum at which she volunteered during her research.
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