Thursday, September 1, 2011

#89. JIM SHORE - Someone born on a Native American reservation.”

Jim Shore

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Jim Shore, the General Counsel for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, is completely blind behind his dark sunglasses.

One eye was blind at birth and the other lost sight after a car accident in 1970. In 2002, Jim survived being shot three times, once in the chest. He was the first Seminole Indian to attend law school, and he helped negotiate the first acquisition of an international corporation by a tribe of Native Americans, a $965 million dollar deal that handed the entire Hard Rock casino, hotel and restaurant franchise to the Seminole Tribe.

Jim Shore’s story is remarkable, but Jim Shore would be the last person to tell you that.

A couple weeks ago, my father and I went to the Seminole Tribe’s South Florida headquarters for an official meeting with Jim. Everyone from the security guard to the office assistants was in awe of him. “His story is amazing,” we heard over and over. We’re directed to a conference room and soon enough, Jim enters. My father and I are instructed to stand and introduce ourselves when he arrives, so he knows from our voices where we’re sitting.

Jim is 66 years old. He has a round face, dark skin, and graying hair. He speaks with a mix of a Southern and Midwestern accent that sounds like he’s a John Wayne character. He’s a self-described hard worker and never takes vacations unless it’s traveling for work. He’s not married. Other than the occasional smirk, he doesn’t make any facial expressions. He’s extremely matter-of-fact. In the beginning, interviewing him is unnerving. It’s not that he’s distant or unfriendly. He’s just all business.

Jim was born in a traditional chickee hut on the Brighton Reservation near Glades County in northern Florida. He grew up on the res. His father had cattle and horses and Jim worked as a ranch hand, farmer and cowboy whenever he wasn’t in school. His mother was a homemaker, taking care of Jim and his six siblings.

When Jim was in the fourth grade, his government-funded reservation school shut down due to lack of money.

All the students were transferred to the nearby public Okeechobee schools, after other public schools declined to take the reservation students. It was the first time Jim and the other young members of the Seminole Indian tribe were integrated in the community at large beyond quick trips into town. He graduated from Okeechobee High School in 1963.

The Seminole Tribe has a strong presence in the state of Florida, dating back to the early 1700s when Indians in the Southeast were removed from the East Coast to Oklahoma under the Indian Removal Act. Some were able to escape to Florida, and then a combination of those tribes formed the Seminoles.

The U.S. government tried to again move them from Florida to Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The government was mostly successful except for a small group of about 300 Seminoles that remained.

“They fought the U.S. government to the point where they quit fighting us and so forth,” Jim says. “So Seminoles here are descendants of that 200 or 300 that were able to fight off the government. There’s at least 3,700 of us now.”

The Seminoles that were removed to Oklahoma formed their own, larger tribe. The ties that may have existed back then no longer do, Jim says. They have their own government and membership. And a somewhat strained relationship still exists between the US government and the Seminole Tribe.

The tribes deal mainly with the federal government, because that’s where the money comes from. Jim says the relationship depends on which administration is involved: Republicans or Democrats. State governments can impose regulations, but generally tribes and state governments stay out of each other’s ways.

“We got to where we just tolerate each other, because we’re here and we’re not going to go anywhere and they might as well. Now we’re going to be here, so why not just try to work with each other,” he says. “But it always depends on the economy, like everybody else. If it’s good, then things are good, but if not, then some of the smaller groups, smaller programs, will be first to be cut or eliminated.”

The relationship there always involves money. When the US economy is suffering, money for the Indian tribes across the country is reduced. The tribe depends on the US government for “Indian Health Service,” which helps with the medical needs of the tribe and for money for education. Education, Jim says, gets very little assistance. He says the revenue they generate from gaming helps the Seminole Tribe stay out of debt better than other, less business-oriented tribes.

Not all tribes do, but the Seminoles have a system where, depending on the budget and how much gaming money is projected for the year, each tribal member gets some monetary assistance.

Aside from money, Jim says he prefers the federal government be hands off.

“I figure it is just to leave us alone and then we’ll be in good shape,” he says. “There’s people that, for whatever reason, historically unknown, may never get along with the tribe; but then there’s other people in the country here, for no reason at all, they will always be supportive of the tribe. So there’s no one group across the board that you can say reflects how they feel about the tribe…I think we always have faith in mankind.”

It’s strange that they would. My dad, who grew up in the same area of South Florida around the same time as Jim, tells him he remembers a lot of prejudice and bigotry towards the American Indians in the 1960s.

Jim says that on Brighton reservation, he and his friends were lucky. They never experienced racial prejudice until they left the immediate Okeechobee area. It helped that a lot of his Native American friends played on the high school’s sports teams, winning them popularity among the white students.

My dad says he recalls signs at restaurants that read “For Coloreds” and “For Whites” when he was growing up.

Jim laughs, “Hell, we never even knew if we was white or black,” he says. “We go through that white area and nobody ever said anything. We always thought that was the way it was supposed to be until we left Okeechobee. But there was a lot of these prejudices, not only here when we were in Okeechobee, but across the country. It still exists.”

In the old days, Jim says, if you were not white and you tried to go through Davie or Hollywood, Florida, you could get stopped by police. “Coloreds” were not allowed to be there socially — only for work.

My dad says that his mother had a black maid in 1957. One Saturday, she brought her son with her to work, and he and my father were out in the streets playing. One of the neighbors came over to the house, knocked on the door and told my grandmother, “You’d better get your son and that boy in the house right away.”

Jim nods. It’s a familiar narrative. He says back then, he would tell young Native Americans to just avoid the area.

In the safety of the reservation, Jim grew up speaking both Creek, the tribe’s native language, and English, which he learned on his reservation’s school. Some Seminole tribal members can speak both Creek and Miccosukee, but Jim regretfully admits he’s “only bilingual.”

That’s a staple of my conversation with Jim: downplaying accomplishments. His tone of voice never changes, even when discussing things he reluctantly admits might seem “extraordinary or crazy.”

For example, nine years ago, an unknown gunman tried to murder Jim through the sliding glass door of his home. The bullets went through his chest and shattered a bone in his arm. He was alone. Blood flowing down to his right hand, he dialed 911. The assailant, who some in the tribe suspect was a person who blamed Jim for a bad business negotiation, was never caught. Since then, the tribal government has provided him with tight security.

“People that have heard my voice on 911 says I made it sound like it was just a plain, cool day here,” he says, laughing softly. “They would have been screaming or something. But again, I had to get through whatever. After that the ambulance came and I even walked out to the ambulance. People used to say I walked out and [other] people had to be carried out. I don’t know what that was all about, but that was just an experience I went through.”

It wasn’t his first brush with tragedy. After his car accident, Jim went to a rehabilitation program for four months in Daytona, Florida. The program taught him how to get along without sight, including how to read Braille.

“I don’t think I was upset at any time. You’ve got to be realistic in life these days,” Jim says. “Whenever I woke up from the hospital all I seen was a red glob and I probably knew that I was going to never see again. Whether you like it or not, that’s the way it is, so you just have to deal with it. I think that’s what I did.”

After rehabilitation, Jim went to junior college in 1973 and then law school, which he finished in 1980. Before his accident, he never thought he’d become a lawyer.

“Well, there’s not much you can do when you can’t see, so you have to start all over again,” he says. He could no longer be a cowboy without sight. “I just took things a day at a time, when I went through rehab and then I started junior college. I didn’t even know if I could make it in the junior college. So I just started there and just ended up surviving a semester at a time until I got through. I was never going to go to school until I lost my sight.”

There were no computers, so Jim listened to a lot of textbooks on tape, which he would order way ahead of time. He was a history major but toward the end of his college career, Jim realized he didn’t want to teach. That’s when he applied to and was accepted at Stetson University College of Law in DeLand, Florida.

He came to South Florida in 1981, and it wasn’t long before Jim started working for the Seminole Tribe at the chairman’s request. The tribe didn’t have many college graduates then. Jim only vaguely knew he was the first to attend law school.

“When you’re the first one, you could always be the first one to flunk out, too,” he says. “I was lucky I made it through.”

It was an accomplishment, he says, that was lost on his very traditional parents. “What do they know about law schools and so forth?,” he says. “They knew we were something, but they wouldn’t know the extent of what it was.”

Having a lawyer on the team that was also a member of the tribe was a boon for the Seminole Tribe. Jim already knew the tribal members and could “bring something extra than you would if it was just strictly from the books,” he says. A non-tribal member with the same education would lack the attachment Jim has. It helps the people relate to him.

In the legal world, Jim is most well known for the 2007 Hard Rock negotiations. The tribe wanted to get more involved with gaming and using the iconic “Hard Rock” name would help immensely, Jim says. The name was owned by a company in England. The Seminole Tribe was granted permission to use the name on their Hollywood, Florida and Tampa, Florida casinos for ten years. They wanted a more secure deal.

“So our management then thought that it may be a good idea to buy the Hard Rock itself so we don’t pay them; we’ll be paying ourselves,” Jim says. The deal took three years to negotiate. In 2007, the Tribe officially purchased the worldwide Hard Rock including all the cafes and most of the hotels and casinos. Even if they facility is owned by someone else, the name “Hard Rock” belongs to the tribe, so the Seminoles get a fee for the name.

“We don’t do anything if it’s not going to make us money,” he says.

The emphasis on money is interesting since Jim grew up rural and poor. I ask how growing up on a reservation is different from the childhood of someone who grew up elsewhere. He says it probably wasn’t that different.

“Sometimes we get hung up on living on the reservation. We had people next door to us that was part of the countryside that weren’t no better off or worse off than we were,” he says. “You can’t say there was a difference in growing on a reservation than off reservation because, like I said, no one was better off than the next guy. We were just all in the same situation.”

But, I say, the difference would be in the upholding of Native American traditions that could primarily take place on the res. I ask if he thinks the new generation of American Indian will keep the old traditions. He says he thinks this younger generation is more focused on learning about their history and culture than the one before who tended to fall more under the Baby Boomers or ex-hippies of cultural Americana.

“The reason they may not know anything now is because their parents didn’t teach them, and the parents of their parents, or their grandparents, didn’t teach them,” he says. “I think some of the people that were involved in it at that time forgot to tell their kids, their grandkids, of the tradition and so forth. I think we were, at one point, we were in a lower ebb of our historical knowledge, tradition, and so forth. Every now and then, any group of people always get back to this nationalism and so I think the younger folks today are trying to get more focused in on the tradition and custom.”

But he worries it may be too late.

"All the older folks that knew these things may not be around and the group that should have taught them were the ones that didn’t teach them. So it’s kind of one of those things. Could be a losing game, but at least they’re trying. They teach the language and some of the arts and crafts, but more traditional stuff you’re supposed to learn from your elders and so forth. So you don’t have them then you may already be at a loss here."

What about cultural appropriation by white people?, I ask. Does that bother him? The Seminole tribe sells authentic leather jackets and crafts made from cypress leaves. And yet Urban Outfitters also sells rip-offs of these items. Jim says he’d rather, if they wanted to mimic the dress style, people purchase actual Seminole goods — and get the culture right. They don’t even wear headdresses or moccasins.

I ask if he thinks visibility helps with the education of people who may have false assumptions of Native Americans based on ‘Pocahontas’ and the sanitized Thanksgiving story.

Jim says not doing enough to eradicate ignorance is probably one of the tribe’s biggest shortcomings.

“I think, even in my work here, I live with the tribe so much that sometimes we may forget the fact that there are other people out there that may not know us as much as we do internally,” Jim says.

“We live within the tribe so much that sometimes we don’t express ourselves to the community here to teach them there’s more to us than a casino.”


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    Fantastic interview with my pōcē, Jim Shore.
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