THE BOX SEAT: Hard times to Hard Rock

Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, January 2007.

NATIONAL: Self-government can not only work, it can be a spectacular success. The Seminole Indians are living proof, writes BRIAN JOHNSTONE*.

Medicine Man Bobby Henry of the Seminole Tribe of Florida listens to questions during a news conference at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square.  (AAP IMAGE/Timothy A. CLARY)

Medicine Man Bobby Henry of the Seminole Tribe of Florida listens to questions during a news conference at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square. (AAP IMAGE/Timothy A. CLARY)

I’d like to begin 2007 by wishing all NIT readers a happy and prosperous new year. I made one resolution at the beginning of the year. I vowed to kick off Box Seat in 2007 with a First Nations prosperity story.

It came my way just before the Christmas-New Year close down, courtesy of the financial press.

I mentioned it to sundry friends over the holidays. All but one had missed it.

It concerned the sale of the Hard Rock Café chain, one of the most recognisable brands in the world, to the Seminole tribe of Florida.

The Seminoles acquitted the music-themed chain of hotels, casinos and restaurants from the Rank Group of Britain for a cool US$965 million ($1.2 billion).

The British conglomerate had put the business up for sale in July last year.

The Seminoles beat off competition from three rival bidders – the British private equity group, Permira, TDR Capital, another private equity group which recently sold the Pizza Express franchise and Apollo Management, a rival US buyout group.

Hard Rock, which was founded in London in 1971, employs more than 7,000 people at more than 120 restaurants in 45 countries, along with a swag of hotels, two casinos and two concert venues. The company also owns what it claims is the world largest collection of rock memorabilia and if the display of famous instruments and stage gear on their website is any guide I would not disagree.

Incidentally, the current website contains a photograph of Don Bernstine, a man whose job was surely invented by angels.

His task is simple. He flies around the world, hangs out with musicians, and brings back “kick ass memorabilia” for Hard Rock Café to put on display in every café, hotel and casino around the world. But back to the yarn.

The Seminole’s deal includes Hard Rock Café’s Australian outlets in Sydney, the Gold Coast and Melbourne, which employ about 1,200 staff.

So the next time you feel like a night out in any of the three, your beer and hamburger fee will be going straight into First Nation coffers.

The deal was announced with considerable fanfare at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square amid memorabilia from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Van Halen.

Seminole Medicine Man Bobby Henry delivered a blessing before a press conference in the traditional Seminole language and Hard Rock’s President Hamish Dodds presented the tribe’s representatives with a Gibson guitar once owned by Hank Williams.

Luminaries included E Street Band guitarist and Sopranos actor Steven Van Zandt.

Seminole Council representative Max Osceola put it all in perspective.

“Our ancestors sold Manhattan for trinkets,” he said. “We are going to buy Manhattan back, one burger at a time.”

You’d be a fool to doubt him.

The Seminoles are no strangers to the Hard Rock business… they are also no strangers to hard times. The tribe opened Hard Rock casinos and hotels in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida in 2004.

Since then the two locations have reached an occupancy rate of about 90 percent and generate close to 30 percent of the Hard Rock group’s total profits. The group reported revenue in the past financial year is at 250 million pounds sterling and operating profits of 35 million.

The Seminoles are, understandably, looking to expand.

The deal is the biggest acquisition so far by the Seminoles, who derive 90 percent of their income from gambling which they first entered in 1979 with a series of high stake bingo halls.

Although gambling is against the law in many US states, others have awarded exemptions to Native American tribes to allow them to run casinos on their reservations.

Native American tribes are a growing force in the gaming business.

They reportedly operate more than 350 casinos across nearly 30 states.

The National Indian Gaming Commission of the US reported 2005 gross revenues for Indian gaming facilities were $28.69 billion (AUD), an increase of $4.18 billion (AUD) over revenues from the previous year – an increase of 16 percent.

The Seminoles kicked off their business enterprises with a “smoke shop” offering discount tax-free tobacco products in 1977.

According to their website, this provided them with a stable and staple enterprise which continues to this day to provide substantial revenue to tribal coffers.

I can hear some readers grumbling about the morality of “peddling” drugs, the evils of gambling and rock and roll but clearly no government handouts are required here and I’d imagine outlets for economic development free from the yoke of government are as hard to come by in America as they are in Australia.

And the revenues are ploughed back into self-reliance.

Today most tribal members are afforded modern housing and health care. The Seminoles spend more than a million each year on education alone, including grants in aid to promising tribal college students and the operation of the Ahfachkee Indian School.

Its Education Services Division comprise of programs that deliver educational services to all tribal members from six weeks through to senior citizens.

More than 300 tribal members are employed by the Seminoles in dozens of self-government departments, including legal and law enforcement staffs, and housing and real estate services.

Dozens of new enterprises, operated by tribal members, are supported by the Tribal Council and Board.

The Tribal Council is the chief governing body. It comprises a Chairperson, a Vice Chairperson and Council Representatives from each of the Seminole’s six reservations.

The Council oversees all operations, with tourism enterprises a major growth area.

The Seminoles employ more than 2,000 non-Indian staff in the self-government structure and pay about $3.5 million a year in federal payroll taxes. The government of the Seminole Tribe of Florida is exempt from all federal or states taxes although individual tribal members are liable for the same state and federal taxes as non-Indian employees.

The tribe operates its own police department but does not operate a court system. Legal and criminal matters not resolved at the community level are referred to the proper federal and state authorities.

It also operate its own newspaper, The Seminole Tribune, published under the masthead “Voice of the Unconquered” while a Broadcasting Department operates a radio station in Hollywood and sister stations on three reservations.

A Water Resource Management Department was created in 1978 by the Tribal Council. Its mission is to protect and evaluate the tribe’s land and water resources and to facilitate the “wise use and conservation of these resources by other departments”.

This was followed up in 1989 with the creation of the Seminole Water Commission to oversee the WRMD and comprises representatives from the reservations.

The Seminole Tribal Council also enacted the Tribal Water Code to establish a legal framework for protecting and restoring the water of the tribe’s reservations in line with the Council’s direction in implementing tribal sovereignty.

The Environmental Protection Agency has delegated authority to the Seminole Tribe to implement the federal Clean Water Act.

“Simply speaking,” its website says, “the Tribe now has the same authority as the State of Florida to set water quality standards for tribal lands.”

Not bad for a mob who were almost shot out of existence in running wars in the 19th century, with an estimated drop in population from around 1,200 to less than three hundred when hostilities ceased.

Those Seminoles survived on the margins as hunters and guides through the early 20th century before being herded onto reservations. They attained self-government in 1957 after the US Congress passed legislation to terminate federal tribal programs and established the Seminole Tribe of Florida Incorporated, to oversee the business matters of the tribe.

The Seminoles have one priority for the future: maintaining the unique Seminole culture while operating in the mainstream economy. Their website recognises they have “come a long way since the bullets stopped flying a century ago”.

“These days the battleground is often a courtroom, where the Seminole tribe has proved a vigorous defender of its sovereignty. The proud ‘unconquered’ Seminole tribal community remains, as always, a valuable legacy of Florida’s rich and diverse heritage and a national leader among American Indians tribes striving for self-reliance.”

They don’t seem to do all that badly in the boardroom, either.

* Brian Johnstone is a fortnightly writer and columnist for NIT. His work has won him both a Walkley Award and a Human Rights Award.

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