A display of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia including a custom-made Gibson Flying V, which Hendrix played at the Isle of Wight in 1970, is pictured at the Hard Rock Cafe Seattle in Seattle Thursday Feb. 9, 2012 during the Jimi Hendrix Signature Series Edition launch event. Fifteen percent of the sales of the merchandise will benefit the Fender Music Foundation and the Jimi Hendrix Park Foundation. The artwork for the guitar began as a collaboration of artist Alan Aldridge and Jimi Hendrix in 1970. (Stephen Brashear/AP Images for Hard Rock)

The Dirt Poor and Filthy Rich: A Study in Contrasts

Simon Moya-Smith
February 21, 2013

A pair of Sir Elton John’s signature high-heeled boots. … Jimmy Hendrix’s Flying V guitar. One of Madonna’s bustiers. A bevy of pick-chipped six-strings previously owned by rock legends like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton – and one American Indian tribe owns them all.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida, who some analysts say are worth several billion dollars, have become the first American Indian tribe to also be considered a bullish corporation.

In 2006, the Seminoles of Florida (not to be confused with the Seminoles of Oklahoma) purchased the Hard Rock Café from the Britain-based company Rank Group PLC for an estimated $965 million. The unprecedented deal includes more than 120 Hard Rock Cafés and approximately four Hard Rock Hotels as well as two Hard Rock Live! concert venues.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida, who has 2,000 enrolled members, also acquired in the deal one of the largest collections of rock memorabilia found anywhere in the world. The collection is said to include approximately 70,000 items of music nostalgia.

The Seminoles of Florida were the first American Indian tribe to establish a casino on Indian land more than 30 years ago. Due to their success, they are continually approached by outside investors urging the nation to establish a casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Gary Bitner, spokesman for the Seminole Nation, told the Las Vegas Sun that, so far, there are no plans to open a casino on the strip, though they do own two Hard Rock Café restaurants in Las Vegas.

The Seminoles currently operate seven casinos in their home state of Florida whose slots are said to bring in an estimated $500 a day. Las Vegas slots pull in $100 a day.

Lawyer and Professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth College Nathan Bruce Duthu attributes the success of the Seminoles to their prime location as well as their ability to fuse Indian life with the “white way” of making decisions and conducting business.

Duthu, a member of United Houma Nation of Louisiana, said that the Seminoles of Florida have established a confluence of traditional decision-making with the western capitalist structure. As a result of the balance, the Seminoles have not only done well for themselves, he said, but they also continue to make money in a bleak economy.

“Those tribes that have had the most positive result in terms of their economic development are those communities with the highest levels of congruence,” Duthu said. “[It’s] a better indicator of positive economic outcomes.”

Duthu added that the success of Seminole casinos is also due in part to their location. With tourist cities like Miami and Orlando nearby, the Seminoles have seen a steady growth of patrons visiting their casinos, restaurants and resorts.

But for other Indians nations, like the Oglala Lakota of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, money is scarce and poverty is rampant.

Located about 80-miles southeast of Mount Rushmore in the isolated Badlands, Pine Ridge is home to some of America’s most impoverish families. Unemployment is 80-percent. Approximately 49-percent of its residents live below the federal poverty line and per capita income fluctuates between $4,000 and $6,000.

Out of the estimated 400 to 500 homes on Pine Ridge, 150 homes and trailers are without running water or electricity.

And although the Oglala Lakota people own and operate a casino—the Prairie Wind Casino, the revenue stream it brings is crumbs in comparison to Seminole casinos.

“The tribe itself has absolutely no money. No capital. [We’re] just surviving,” said Oglala District Chairman Floyd Brings Plenty. “[We] really do not have the resources.”

Brings Plenty, who added that the Lakota people have no revenue to build new homes, said that there are also no jobs on Pine Ridge. As temperatures begin to plummet, people are struggling to just to stay warm in what is often dilapidated housing, he said.

“I’ve seen a lot of them put in their own wood stove because it’s the only way to keep warm,” he said. “[The stoves] are all over the place.”

Duthu said that the Pine Ridge reservation is far too geographically isolated to achieve financial success like that of the Seminoles.

“It has been very hard for [other] tribes to develop the conditions for being successful because of their limited options,” he said. “It is just simply a major challenge to attract industry [to isolated reservations].”

Attorney Greg Sample, founder of the Indian Law Group with the Portland, Maine-based firm Drummond, Woodsum and MacMahon, said isolation is merely one “factor” affecting low investments on reservations. Sample said non-Native institutions are often wary of investing in Indian nations because they are unfamiliar with American Indian systems of economic and legal operation.

“Doing business with Indian tribes is new to people,” he said. “And they don’t want to be the first. They don’t know what the rules are. They don’t know what happens when things go wrong. It’s the unknown. They say, ‘We’re not sure what system you’re in.’”

Sample added that Indian nations should, then, locate such timid investors and bring appealing investments to them:

“[It’ll] take some talented people—Native or non-Native people—who can pull together an idea that is economically attractive and pitch it to the people who have money,” he said. “It’s not that fundamentally different from borrowing money from the bank.”

Duthu said that part of the Seminoles’ success is due in large to their investments outside of their reservation. He added that other Indian nations, including the Lakota, have either not been able to or are refusing to invest in businesses outside of their reservation, which he said could be a traditional decision.

“[Tribes will make] decisions appropriate for their set of values,” he said.

As for outside corporations investing in reservations, Duthu said he believes some companies choose not to invest in American Indians, excluding the Seminoles, due to biases and erroneous American misconceptions.

“Dominant society may view Indians as a population that … may not be viewed as good business partners due to a lack of education [or a] lack of sophistication,” he said.

“There, I think, is a bias that prevents some sectors of the private economy from wanting to do work with Indian Country,” he said. “Even if you solve the location problem there are some sectors that don’t want to do business with people of color.”

Although the Seminole and Lakota nations are examples of the extreme wealth and abject poverty in Indian Country, the U.S. census reported in 2010 that the median income for American Indian and Alaska Natives was $35,062, which is roughly $15,000 less than the U.S. average.

Some American Indians believe that in order to achieve even the median income it takes temporarily—if not permanently—leaving the reservation.

Walt Pourier, an Oglala Lakota and founder of Nakota Designs – a Denver-based graphics company, said that had his mother not moved he and his siblings as children from Pine Ridge to places like Montana and Southern California he probably wouldn’t have been able to start his own lucrative business.

“There’s no support for even starting a business [on Pine Ridge],” he said. “In my time growing up, it seemed that the opportunities were away from there. Opportunities were in the big city.”

Today, Pourier travels on and off the reservation to help inspire Oglala Lakota youth through art and athletic programs. He said that the financial difficulties found on reservations are a direct result of centuries of mistreatment by the U.S. government.

“It’s a result of our own inability, [which is] a result of the systematic persecution of the indigenous peoples,” he said.

The financial plight plaguing Indian Country is also the result of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, according to Joseph P. Kalt, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University.

Kalt, who said the Indian Reorganization Act, or IRA, which abolished the chief system and supplanted the western democratic form of government, is still too new in Indian Country to work.

“It’s somebody else’s system of government,” he said. “It’s like if America said, ‘Let’s adopt the Chinese system of government.’ No tribes are going to succeed when someone comes in and tells them how they’re going to run their tribe.”

Kalt, who’s the co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard, said that he believes the IRA has adversely affected the Lakota Nation more than any of the other 334 reservations across the U.S.

“You look at [the Rosebud reservation]. You look at Pine Ridge. The last 40 years [has been] like a learning period,” he said. “It’s a foreign institution imposed on these tribes.”

Prior to the implementation of the IRA, the Oglala Lakota people chose its chiefs and other leaders by consensus of the entire nation. Conversely, the IRA elects candidates by majority rule.

Traditionally, the Lakota electoral system was structured to maintain balance and cohesion throughout the nation as well as to provide each individual an opportunity to speak for or against the nominated.

Speaking to the IRA, Pourier, who was born on the Pine Ridge reservation, said it’s time for something “completely different.”

“[The IRA is] a dysfunctional structure,” he said. “It hasn’t worked yet. There just seems to be two steps forward two steps back constantly. There needs to be some mega move to take it off kilt.”

As the Seminoles of Florida reel in the dough, poverty continues to plague Pine Ridge, but Pourier said he feels things are about to change.

“They’re actually building a movie theatre in Kyle,” he said. Kyle, South Dakota, is a city an hour east of Pine Ridge.

Pourier said he has faith that his reservation will one day achieve economic stability.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I have to be this optimistic person. … I can’t lose hope.”