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High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty

High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty

by Jessica Cattelino

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In 1979, Florida Seminoles opened the first tribally operated high-stakes bingo hall in North America. At the time, their annual budget stood at less than $2 million. By 2006, net income from gaming had surpassed $600 million. This dramatic shift from poverty to relative economic security has created tangible benefits for tribal citizens, including employment,


In 1979, Florida Seminoles opened the first tribally operated high-stakes bingo hall in North America. At the time, their annual budget stood at less than $2 million. By 2006, net income from gaming had surpassed $600 million. This dramatic shift from poverty to relative economic security has created tangible benefits for tribal citizens, including employment, universal health insurance, and social services. Renewed political self-governance and economic strength have reversed decades of U.S. settler-state control. At the same time, gaming has brought new dilemmas to reservation communities and triggered outside accusations that Seminoles are sacrificing their culture by embracing capitalism. In High Stakes, Jessica R. Cattelino tells the story of Seminoles’ complex efforts to maintain politically and culturally distinct values in a time of new prosperity.

Cattelino presents a vivid ethnographic account of the history and consequences of Seminole gaming. Drawing on research conducted with tribal permission, she describes casino operations, chronicles the everyday life and history of the Seminole Tribe, and shares the insights of individual Seminoles. At the same time, she unravels the complex connections among cultural difference, economic power, and political rights. Through analyses of Seminole housing, museum and language programs, legal disputes, and everyday activities, she shows how Seminoles use gaming revenue to enact their sovereignty. They do so in part, she argues, through relations of interdependency with others. High Stakes compels rethinking of the conditions of indigeneity, the power of money, and the meaning of sovereignty.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

High Stakes is a work of great ethnographic and theoretical power, written in prose of great clarity. It is also a model of sensitive and thoughtful writing with respect to American Indians, who have long been rightly suspicious of the ethnographic gaze and ethnographic representation. High Stakes shows what ethnography can, indeed must, be and do in the twenty-first century.”—Sherry B. Ortner, author of Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject

High Stakes tracks to the core of contemporary North American settler society today—the economy of value that structures expectation and possibility for indigenous peoples and the state. Here Jessica R. Cattelino examines with great ethnographic care and rigor the expectation that Indians be poor even where they have wealth, that wealth portends a diminishment of culture, and that indigeneity then stand before this process in an unrelenting and unchanging way. With a nuanced, careful, and precise ethnographic eye to and with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, this very important book proves so much otherwise.”—Audra Simpson, Columbia University

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High Stakes

Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty
By Jessica R. Cattelino

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4209-0

Chapter One

Casino Roots

In journalistic and scholarly accounts alike, tribal gaming frequently is called a "new buffalo," for example in the title of an early book on the topic: Return of the Buffalo (Lane 1995). This trope refers to the anticipation by Plains Indians that a "new buffalo" would return to offer sustenance and healing in the wake of colonial destruction. It is a powerful image, yet one that renders gaming resources external to indigenous economic and political action. Similarly, studies of casinos' "impact" on indigenous communities implicitly render gaming as a capitalist project that acts upon indigenous peoples. But casinos did not just happen to Seminoles and other American Indian tribes. Instead, they followed from indigenous actions that emerged from specific histories and that shaped the everyday significance of casinos across Indian Country and beyond. Some Indian nations, including Hopi, Onondaga, and (until recently) Navajo, have voted down tribal gaming in part because they view it as incompatible with the cultural life they value. Others, including most Seminoles, do not see a conflict between gaming and their cultural distinctiveness, for reasons that have much to do with their economic, political, and cultural histories.

There is pervasive pride on Seminole reservations that this is where high-stakes tribal gaming began. But if Indian gaming did not simply "happen," how best can we situate its history? One might categorize casinos as continuous with older indigenous games of chance, and some scholars have taken this approach by emphasizing the antiquity and authenticity of Indian gaming (Darian-Smith 2003: 56-57; Gabriel 1996; Pasquaretta 1994; Stein 1997: 146-47) or by taking gaming to be an allegory for indigenous peoples' survival of colonialism and its risks (Pasquaretta 2003). Some casinos incorporate indigenous themes and iconography, from the Mystic Lake (Shakopee Mdewakanton) casino illuminating the sky with beams in the shape of a giant teepee to the Rain-maker sculpture at the Mashantucket Pequot Foxwoods casino.

By contrast, I have never heard Seminoles claim that their casinos reflect something particularly Seminole; to the contrary, people often asserted that casinos are their business, not their culture. When I asked where gaming came from, no one responded with a timeless tale of Indian games of chance. Except for patchwork vests worn by staff at the smaller casinos, the occasional chickee-evocative palm frond in casino interiors, and the recent addition of several "Seminole Pride" video bingo games at the Hollywood Hard Rock (with lucky sevens in the medicine colors-white, black, red, and yellow-and images of chickees, baskets, Osceola, and other Seminole icons), Seminole casinos do not look very distinctive. John Fontana, general manager of Tampa Hard Rock, explained that casino management sought to avoid "tak[ing] a tacky or cheesy approach to the culture." Additionally, he explained, the multiplicity of Seminoles' opinions about cultural accuracy and tradition would complicate any attempt to offer a single, definitive visual interpretation of Seminole culture (August 24, 2005). Minor modifications to Hard Rock resorts have accommodated Seminole tastes and taboos, for example the last-minute replacement of steak knives that had imitation snakeskin handles just before the Tampa Hard Rock opening, while others remain points of discomfort, such as the Tampa hotel's imitation snakeskin elevators. The casinos themselves, then, do not convey much in the way of indigenous history.

That the story of Seminole casinos cannot be told as a timeless indigenous game of chance, however, does not strip Seminole gaming of history. Instead, its roots are in Seminoles' struggles to secure tribal control over governance, as discussed in chapter 4, and in their efforts to sustain themselves economically while maintaining a distinctive way of life. This chapter shows Seminole gaming to be one stage in a complex history of twentieth-century tribal economic development initiatives that contingently linked, separated, and produced Seminole economy and Seminole culture.

Unlike many other nations, American Indian tribes generally lack an economic base (of population, taxable property, and individual wealth) sufficient to generate revenues through taxation. Because reservations are federal trust lands, tribes cannot offer land as collateral in order to secure loans. Like the state of Florida, which collects no income tax and therefore faces fiscal strain on state programs (Colburn 1996: 370), and like local governments that offer property tax breaks to recruit corporations, Seminoles have experimented with the relationship between governance and economy. In the Seminole case, however, this is further complicated by explicit concerns about the relationship of "economy" to "culture." In order to locate gaming within Seminole histories and practices of valuation, it is necessary to analyze prior economic projects-ranging from cattle to crafts, from alligator wrestling to smoke shops-in which the relationship between economy and culture was generated in intercultural spaces and in the gendered life activities and productive work of Seminole people.

Commenting upon the economic success of Seminole casinos, anthropologist J. Anthony Paredes wrote: "There is, indeed, a certain irony if not paradox in the fact that it was the Seminoles, so long respected for clinging to the 'ways of their ancestors' in the swampy vastness of the Everglades, who would be so pivotal in unleashing the juggernaut of Indian gaming in modern America" (Paredes 1995: 355). Yet, Seminole cultural values and economic development have been inextricably intertwined since the early 1900s. Indeed, it was in part through twentieth-century economic practices that the very idea of Seminole culture itself-as a measurable, identifiable, and potentially commodified thing-emerged. Instead of posing a paradox of culture and economy, I follow anthropologists, such as Fred Myers (2002) and Elizabeth Povinelli, who "theorize the relationship between the productivity of indigenous practice and the production of cultural identity" (Povinelli 1993: 24).

To understand the processes by which Seminoles engage with the meanings and stakes of culture, this and the next chapter employ Bourdieu's (1993) concept of "cultural production," which signals the ways that culture is delimited, valued, and generated in a power-laden field of social and economic relations. In the context of art and literature, but with broad implications, Bourdieu called for the study not only of the material production of culture but also of its symbolic production, "i.e., the production of the value of the work or, which amounts to the same thing, of belief in the value of the work" (Bourdieu 1993: 37). This approach focuses analysis on the field of actors and circumstances in which Seminole "culture" is generated and valued. It helps us to see culture and economy in action, and in the making. At a historical moment when selling culture is increasingly demanded and remunerated on a global scale, especially for indigenous peoples (Turner 1999), the historical coproduction of Seminole economy and culture sheds light upon the more general question of how to measure the currency of culture.


A 1959 Miami Herald article titled "Indians, Cowboys at Peace: Former Have Become Latter," suggests that "A legendary Indian chief looking down from the happy hunting grounds on the Florida Indians of today would probably turn pale with anger" because "as the cash register sings jingle, jangle in the background," Seminoles have become cowboys. An accompanying cartoon (figure 5) contrasts Indian life (bareback riding) with new cowboy ways and their technologies. A befuddled Seminole man, standing before a family huddled in a chickee, asks another Seminole mounted on a saddled horse and dressed in cowboy attire: "What're we coming to?" The answer: "A saddle!" (F. Porter 1959).

Seminole cattle, a key twentieth-century federal and later tribal economic development project, sparked the imagination of many observers who considered cowboys to stand for all that was American and, therefore, in a world of mutually exclusive racial identities, not Indian. But it is historical fallacy to oppose cattle ranching and Indianness. Seminoles and their ancestors had worked cattle since they obtained cows from Spanish colonists, long before the U.S. claimed Florida and non-Indian cowboys ranged the West. Indeed, by the early-to-mid-1700s, stock raising was both a major source of meat and a pillar of the Creek and proto-Seminole "export economy" (primarily Spanish trade) and "internal political economy" (Sattler 1998). Seminole cattle ranchers reminded me that their ancestors had owned large herds in northern Florida-Richard Sattler (1998: 86-87) reported Seminole cattle sales of 1,000 head each-and that they had fought against Americans who raided their herds and seized their pasturelands.

In 1936, the federal government shipped 500 head of Hereford drought-relief cattle from Apaches in Arizona to the fledgling BIA Seminole Agency (Black 1976: 1). Officials hoped that cattle would provide Seminoles with much-needed income, starting them on a path to self-sufficiency through modern, scientific agriculture. Like nineteenth-century federal policies of land allotment, this cattle program "assumed that the routine work of agriculture would provide the necessary training in thrifty habits that all 'civilized' peoples possessed" (Deloria and Lytle 1983: 9-10). Government officials worked with Seminoles to distribute cattle on the Brighton and Big Cypress Reservations, build fences and develop pastures, seek technical assistance from Extension Service experts, and structure herd management. The program encompassed both tribal and individually owned herds, with individual owners paying fees to the cattle cooperative in return for pasture improvement, marketing, breeding, and other services.

Cattle ownership under the new regime had far-reaching consequences. The Indian agent distributed cattle only to male Seminoles who resided on newly designated federal reservation lands, and some at Brighton consider the cattle program to have been a government ploy to "herd" reluctant Indians onto the reservation. As Stanlo Johns (Panther), land use manager, cattle owner, and respected cultural educator, put it: "It took the government years and years to get all the Indians on the reservation. Before, a lot of the Indians didn't want to live on the reservation. They were saying that this was just a trick way of getting you to where they would ship you out of here, because way back two hundred years ago they were sent off to Oklahoma and they didn't like that. I guess that's been drilled in their heads for years and years." Then, he added, the government got smart and used cattle as an incentive (February 28, 2001).

Seminoles in the new cattle program became reliant on government technical and financial aid, and cattle program administration formed the nucleus of the emerging federal apparatus that would dominate Seminole governance through the 1970s. Faced with decentralized Seminole governance before the 1957 reorganization, federal officials turned to elected cattle trustees to represent collective interests (Kersey 1989, 1996). Cattle also facilitated the emergence of new economic and status distinctions (Black 1976; Garbarino 1972). In order to own cattle, both individuals and the Tribe as a whole took on unprecedented debt. This mired them in a debt relationship to the federal government that would not disappear until casinos, but it also had productive potential: cattle owners could leverage their herds as equity in order to obtain loans unavailable to other reservation Indians. Cattle as equity, in turn, enabled new capital-intensive pursuits-for example, housing and business ventures-that were previously unimaginable. Male cattle owners' emerging class status and increased business contacts led commentators to characterize them as "the less conservative, more white-oriented members of the tribe" (Fairbanks 1973: 43-44) or as agents of acculturation (Garbarino 1972). Some nonowners resent that the Tribe pours resources into a cattle industry that primarily benefits individuals, not the Tribe as a whole, and that ties up large tracts of land as pastures.

As of 2001, Seminoles were among the largest cattle operators in Florida, collectively owning the twelfth-largest cow and calf operation in the United States. The tribal herd, of which all tribal members are shareholders, totaled approximately 7,000 head, while individuals' herds averaged about 100 head. The Tribe also operated a 6,000-acre cattle ranch near Managua, Nicaragua, and had opened a Latin American market for its breeding stock. Cow life cycles contribute to the seasonal rhythm of reservation life. While working cattle, families and friends renew their ties to each other and to pasturelands as vital places in the reservation landscape. For example, in March 2000 I spent a day with the owners and cowboys at Big Cypress who worked Paul Bowers's (Panther) cattle. They rounded up, branded, vaccinated, injected with bovine growth hormone, dehorned, and otherwise tended to the approximately 200-head herd of range Brangus (figure 6).

If it is seldom lucrative for the Tribe and only marginally profitable for most individual owners, why does this cattle program persist, and what can this tell us about the significance of cattle to Seminoles? As among indigenous communities in the West (Iverson 1994), cattle have become a marker of Seminole belonging and community identity. Cattle also link Seminoles to their non-Indian neighbors in Florida's peninsular interior, where agriculture rules the economy, rugged masculine individualism is celebrated, cattle families go way back, and racial tensions run deep. In this land of self-identified "crackers" and Indians, of big prairie skies and subtropical fenced-in pastures, it is in part through cattle that groups consolidate as both racially different and regionally linked.

Multiple events and institutions celebrate Seminoles' cattle heritage, but rodeo is the most visible. On a warm November 2000 day, the Brighton Reservation hosted the Southeastern Circuit Finals of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (P.R.C.A.), the major rodeo organization. The event was held in a large arena while being broadcast on the Tribe's closed-circuit television station; attendance was approximately 2,000, more than half non-Seminole. Sponsors, in addition to the tribal government, included a local Dodge truck dealer and a Western-wear store. After singing the U.S. national anthem and applauding horseback displays of the American and Seminole flags, we watched a full complement of rodeo events, including bareback and saddle bronco riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing (the only women's event), and bull riding. All-Indian rodeos occur each year at the Tribal Fair in Hollywood and at Brighton Field Days, a February celebration that also features patchwork clothing competitions, athletic contests (e.g., archery, canoe races, and log peeling, which is a necessary skill for chickee building), live entertainment, a parade, and vendors selling everything from Mexican pottery to Confederate flags.

Seminoles have been involved in rodeo at least since the 1950s, when they held a rodeo to fund a tribal delegation's travel to Washington, D.C., to testify against Federal termination policy. Today, they are leaders in the Eastern Indian Rodeo Association, an intertribal group. When Seminoles join with other indigenous people in rodeos, they rewrite rodeo's dominant narratives of "winning the West" and of cowboy power over the land (Lawrence 1982). Youth rodeo is one of the only tribal education programs with extensive adult male participation, and Moses Jumper Jr. (Snake), tribal recreation director, viewed it as a way to link children to their Seminole heritage (January 16, 2001). 4-H steer programs further encourage youth involvement. Additionally, each spring hundreds of children and adults gather at Big Cypress for the Junior Cypress Cattle Drive. Participants listen to speeches about the historical importance of cattle to Seminoles before mounting horses (or, in my case, hitching a ride on a swamp buggy) to drive cattle through the reservation and gather for a barbecue and an all-Indian rodeo.


Excerpted from High Stakes by Jessica R. Cattelino Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Jessica R. Cattelino is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.

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