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No time for cruise control

As the Seminole Tribe continues to grow, not only financially, but in all ways, including membership, there will always be issues that we have to address. We must make sure that we maintain our financial power, keep reinforcing the need for our youth to be educated and continue to address the ongoing challenges to our sovereignty. There will never be a time where we can say, “Let’s put it on cruise control.”

That was evident when I traveled to Washington, D.C. recently, to attend the Tribal Nations Conference hosted by the White House. My observations at this event made me realize, more than ever, how blessed we are. While back home the Seminole Tribe is wrestling with how to control its membership growth and better manage the financial success that we have, other Tribes were focused on making sure their health coverage – that they are entitled to by the trust responsibility of the United States – is continued.

It occurred to me, while very important, health coverage is just not one of the priority issues that we Seminoles talk about. With our success, we don’t give it a second thought. The current status of the Seminole Tribe is well documented in Indian Country because of our success. We enjoy a certain notoriety. People always want to talk to me. They always want to know what is the secret to our success. Well, there has been a lot of trial and error. We have definitely made our share of mistakes along the way.

When I am asked, I tell Tribes, “First of all, you need to determine what it is you ultimately want to achieve. At that point, you will see what you need to do.” They want to know our “secret,” but they never ask me what mistakes we have made. I think that is more important, to learn from mistakes – not only your own but others as well.

The trip to Washington was – no matter how many times you have been there, no matter how many times you have met with various Cabinet members – enlightening. You are definitely reminded that, hey, as people in the administration change, our fight as Indians will always continue. I think the Obama administration has been very good about making sure that American Indian Tribes do have a serious presence.

For me, personally, I wanted to hear and further understand Obama’s message for Indian Country and also to lend support for up-and-coming Tribes and those who are just struggling to survive, day in and day out. We accommodate other Tribes when we can, share our stories, offer our help, but, more importantly, we remind other Tribal leaders, “Hey look, we Seminoles have been very fortunate. We count our blessings. We don’t take anything for granted. This is a fight that you have to fight as well.”

Tribal members can take comfort in knowing that we are going to continue to be visible and continue to fight for our sovereignty.

The economy has had a lot to do with the current onslaught of legislative attacks on Indian sovereignty. States have budget deficits to deal with, so when the economy was good, hey, there was more than enough tax base to satisfy their budget requirements. That, however, is not the case today. What we are seeing today is just a symptom of the economic downturn.

Here in Florida, we will have to continue to fight the annual casino legislation battles. It would be nice if we didn’t have to, but that is the environment that we are in today. However, given that issue, we have shown that we have still been able to protect our market. We don’t necessarily view the state as a bad guy. They have the same issues as we do, trying to take care of the citizens of Florida without having to raise taxes or transfer burden to the business owners. In fact, we are looked upon by the state as an opportunity to help some of their problems.

In terms of dollars and cents, the Seminole Tribe pays more to the state than anybody around. It’s because of our level of success that we pay so much. It’s not exactly labeled as a tax. Because of our agreement with the state, we must pay for our privilege, and we pay more than anybody else around. But I think that, in order for us to continue what we have and protect what we have, that is a scenario that will continue to exist…unless the state feels it can do better by opening gaming up statewide.

At which point we would not have to pay them anything.

But the state has seen that even when they had given in to the pari-mutuels, gave them slot machines, what the state was promised never materialized. They have not delivered. On the other hand, we have been committed to the Compact and we have made our payments, on time, to the state. We are a known quantity, a proven quantity.

That is another factor that will go in our favor when it is time to renegotiate the Compact. Where other people come in and make promises, the Seminole Tribe delivers.

Gov. Rick Scott definitely has been very cautious around this issue. Gaming is a very touchy, sensitive subject, and I can understand the approach he has taken. It’s not just a straight black and white issue. There are many different positions people can take. Scott has to compromise; he has to deal with us and deal with them. I have had the opportunity to speak with him on two separate occasions when he came to visit us at the Hollywood Seminole Reservation. I take that as a sign that, hey look, if someone is willing to take the time and visit us and try to find out what we are, it can’t be a bad thing.

While we are talking about the level of success we have had, the Tribal members need to know that with the Tribal prosperity, there is a cost associated with it, not only in terms of dollars and cents but also in terms of personal sacrifice. Someone has to be in Tallahassee. And someone has to be in D.C. And when you have to be in those places, you know what? You are sacrificing a lot of precious time away from your family.

All of us must understand it is no different than the sacrifices made by our ancestors. We are just continuing on the path that set us in motion. Just because we have to travel somewhere, it is not all fun and games; It’s long hours, and it’s personal sacrifices – I know this is what we signed up for. Sometimes I think that gets lost in everything that we do.

I think, at times, Tribal members understand what we are trying to do, and there are times when I get the feeling some people are waiting for the other shoe to fall off so they can see, “See, nothing’s changed. It was just a show. Now, the real colors start to show up.” Take a look at the people who are in there; take a look at their past. A leopard doesn’t change its spots. As long as we continue to be transparent, however, some of those apprehensions that people have will eventually subside, maybe not completely, but they will subside.

I can understand where Tribal members question, “Hey, what are we doing?” because some of the things we are doing are things you can’t touch or feel…changes in policies, administrative changes, not always something where you can walk out the front door and say, “Hey, I see it.”

I can understand where some of the insecurity may come from. But, I think if the people took the time and really started digging in and really started looking at the changes that have been put into place, they would really be surprised. It is a testament to this administration. We are not in trouble. You don’t see any stories where the Seminole Tribe is not able to fulfill our obligations.

Take a moment and just look back and see where we were at 50 years ago versus where we are today. Where once no bank would give us a loan, now we enjoy a level of success that has everyone lining up to conduct business with us. Once, we had to go knock on numerous doors before somebody would eventually open up and say, “All right. OK. I’ll take a chance.” We don’t have to do that now.

Despite our internal challenges, we have managed to keep our heads above water and continue to be more prosperous. In order to keep the current momentum going, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. We must continue to work on our social issues and educate our youth and position them to be the leaders of tomorrow.

That’s not only a dream and a desire, it is our responsibility to make that happen.

This Board of Directors has been very adamant on keeping information flowing freely to our constituents – not only when we have good news to tell but also when we experience a rough patch. We will come in and tell you when we are going through difficult times, and we will balance that with a plan of action: Here is what we are doing to address this situation and start experiencing some positive results. As long as you keep that information coming, the less likely that people are going to start rumors or take the first thing they hear as gospel and start spreading that.

This is the time of the year where everyone tries to get a lot of work accomplished because of the upcoming holidays. We do it with the thought firmly in mind that we must make good decisions and not make hasty decisions. As the elected President, I have been very fortunate to have the current Board of Directors to work with.

That is not to say we don’t have disagreements, but the disagreements create opportunities to discuss and explain the thought process, which may get someone to change his mind. This Board will continue to act with the Tribal members’ best interests at heart.

As we finish up the year with the Christmas holidays, from the entire Board of Directors, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Be safe.

Sho-naa-bish.

Tony Sanchez Jr. is President of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.

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