With 5,000 noisy slot machines, a couple hundred poker, blackjack, and baccarat tables, and superstar artifacts like Elvis Presley’s gold piano, the Seminole Hard Rock Casino is open 24/7. Gamblers who enter through the Lucky Street entrance, on the other hand, must first pass through a dimly lit, quiet hallway of black-and-white photos that reveal who owns this shrine to blind luck.
The pictures portray Seminole Indians in Florida carving dugout canoes and living in thatch-roofed chickees. Some of the images date back more than a century, to a time when gambling was “unknown among them,” according to a 1913 report to Congress.
This tribe of around 4,300 now owns and operates six casinos in Florida, as well as six others in other states, Canada, and the Dominican Republic, as well as a hotel and restaurant chain with locations in 70 countries. And it’s poised to take exclusive control of the largest legal sports betting operation in the country, thanks to a deal cut this spring with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the legislature.
According to DeSantis, the “historic compact” will generate $6 billion for the state from now until 2030. The Seminoles are expected to also benefit handsomely, though they have not disclosed specific projections.
Critics such as Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber claim that the agreement is a blatant attempt to circumvent federal rules governing Indian gaming, as well as a 2018 constitutional amendment mandating voter approval of any casino expansion — an amendment that the Seminoles supported.
Gelber said that “The legislature and the governor seem to be doing backflips to avoid giving this to the voters.”
However, the agreement could still be jeopardized by lawsuits filed by two pari-mutuel companies, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in the Cabinet, must evaluate it. She has 45 days to approve or reject it; if she does nothing, the compact will take effect.
For the moment, the tribe is riding high. Jim Allen, chief executive of Seminole Gaming and chairman of the Seminole-owned Hard Rock International said that “There is no one else in the casino industry with that kind of global footprint.”
How did a tribe that once hid in the Everglades to avoid exile hit such a big jackpot?
Jessica R. Cattelino, a professor of anthropology at UCLA and the author of High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty said that “The through-line of this story is not gambling but their determination to preserve their culture and their way of life.”
When Juan Ponce de León arrived in 1513 and claimed the territory for Spain, there were thousands of Seminoles living in scattered villages. Many died as a result of diseases brought by explorers, while others were killed in attacks by settlers and the US military over the centuries. When Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, American troops captured most of the Seminoles to ship off to Oklahoma.
Those who managed to escape — no more than 200, according to historian Dave Scheidecker, an archaeologist for the tribe — fled into the River of Grass, where they fended soldiers in guerrilla wars. Because the Seminoles never signed a treaty of surrender, the tribe refers itself “the Unconquered People.”
Maintaining your independence, however, and making a living demand different abilities. Members of the tribe began adapting to become part of the developing tourism industry in the early 1900s, making crafts to sell as souvenirs and wrestling alligators for entertainment. Some got into cattle ranching, spurring jokes about Indians playing cowboy, but they made a success of it.
The Seminoles fought back after Congress approved the Indian Termination Act in 1953, which was designed to dissolve and relocate any tribe that did not have a binding legal treaty. To win federal recognition as a sovereign nation — a country within a country — they elected a tribal council and ratified a constitution in 1957. That meant they paid no taxes on the sale of items like cigarettes, enabling their stores to price them cheaper than nearby White-owned businesses.
Tribal elders decided to take the sovereign nation concept a step further in 1979, and created the first Native American high-stakes bingo hall in the nation. Their venue was a dumpy building on their reservation in Hollywood, near Fort Lauderdale. If bingo doesn’t work out, one tribal leader joked, they could turn it into a roller rink.
Local officials were angry because the Seminoles were touting $25,000 jackpots, greatly above the state’s legal limit of $100. The tribe, according to then-Sheriff Bob Butterworth, a Democrat who would go on to become Florida’s attorney general, was not only breaking the law, but also acting as a front for the mafia. When he lost a legal challenge, it allowed all other Native American tribes nationwide to start their own gambling businesses.
Fast-forward to the current empire, which is led by Marcellus Osceola Jr., the grandson of the tribe’s first chairman.
Osceola said in a brief statement issued in response to questions from The Washington Post that “Because of gaming, we’re able to keep educating our children. We’re able to provide medical services. And we’re building over 500 homes on six of the reservations to get tribal members back to the reservations.”
According to the National Indian Gaming Commission, 247 tribes operate 527 gaming facilities in 29 states. In fiscal year 2019, their gross gaming revenue was $34.6 billion.
According to Nick Sortal, a former journalist who covered Florida gambling for a decade before being elected to the Plantation city council, the Seminoles are among the top three tribes in terms of revenue. He views their embrace of new technology as key: Their casinos were among the first to offer bingo-slot machines, providing customers the illusion of Vegas action while keeping within the rules.
Sortal said that “That was a brilliant thing they did,” slots appeal to a demographic he calls “the lonely abuela,” explaining, “You’ve got grandmas from Miami-Dade County playing $50 to $100 on the slot machines every day.”
Allen, who is not a tribal member, is credited with coming up with the idea for the gaming machines with the game manufacturers. He began his career as a cook at Bally’s in Atlantic City and worked his way up to the top, including overseeing Donald Trump’s three Atlantic City properties.
In 2001, the Seminoles hired him (and then purchased Trump’s shuttered Taj Mahal casino in 2017). After five years, Allen successfully negotiated the buying of the Hard Rock International chain for $965 million.
A tribe must negotiate with a state on any operations other than poker and bingo, according to federal law. Then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist agreed to a $1 billion deal with Seminole casinos to legalize real slot machines, baccarat, and blackjack in exchange for a share of the revenue.
But the deal fell apart in 2019 because the Seminoles did not believe state officials were enforcing a ban on competitors in the pari-mutuel industry running similar games. They stopped paying the state $350 million a year.
The lost revenue provided a significant incentive for DeSantis and legislative leaders to reach an agreement allowing the tribe to expand into the lucrative new field of smartphone-based sports betting.
The mayor of Miami Beach and other detractors argue that the agreement is an illegal workaround. Because the computer server is located on the tribe’s land in Hollywood, Fla., a bet placed over a cellphone anywhere in the state is considered to have been placed while on the tribe’s land in Hollywood, Fla. According to Gelber, the strategy violates the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Wire Act, and the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.
He said that “Casinos are a cancer on a community, damaging the local economy. We’re not Las Vegas, where there’s nothing else to do.”
Despite the tribe’s wealth, the Seminoles maintain their culture by gathering in their traditional clans for activities.
According to Scheidecker, their patchwork jackets are “are almost like formalwear,” and while most tribal members in Florida now live in modern homes, almost all have chickees built behind or beside them.
Few Seminoles work in casinos; according to Allen, just about 100 of Hard Rock’s 50,000 employees worldwide are Seminoles.
Instead, they gravitate toward jobs in tribal government, smoke shops, ranching, and citrus operations.
He said that “Because their focus is more on their family and culture, they prefer jobs that are more 9-to-5. whereas our business tends to be 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”