Road Trip: #TheResistance, a rock and roll spa and the Seminole Tribe of Florida

A lovers' weekend at The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa — without ever setting foot in the casino.

click to enlarge This is what I walked into for my massage. My first question: Are you going to play the guitar? (No) - Courtesy of Seminole Hard Rock & Casino Tampa
Courtesy of Seminole Hard Rock & Casino Tampa
This is what I walked into for my massage. My first question: Are you going to play the guitar? (No)

The press release intrigued me: get a sweetgrass massage at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa. WTF was sweetgrass? And, um, a casino? Yuck.

But... but the Seminole Tribe. And a massage. But mostly the Seminole Tribe.

See, my love affair with the Seminole stems from two things: One, the Seminole are the only tribe who never signed a peace treaty with the United States (not that we honored any of 'em anyway). Two, the Seminole wars — there were three — were the bloodiest and most expensive in American history. They repeatedly outsmarted General Andrew Jackson, whose later presidency and attitudes towards immigration and anyone who wasn't white (alongside claims that he was "a regular guy") made for some eerie foreshadowing of our current regime, especially with talk of opening native lands in Utah to development and extractive industries.

But notice Trump hasn't tried to mess with the Seminole, perhaps with good reason: They make the "Don't Tread On Me" flag look like a set of kid's pajamas. They'll kick your ass, leave you for dead and make you feel lucky for the experience. I am remarkably OK with this, and I applaud them owning all the Hard Rocks and milking people of every color and creed for money at the blackjack tables. Look, my ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower (which was, as my dad likes to point out, wildly devoid of Italians); we didn't kill any indigenous people in the New World. I still understand their tragedy. That said, I've grown quite fond of my home and am not about to give the property back to the Seminole Tribe of Florida. 

Not that they need it; of all the indigenous people we screwed without so much as a vague promise to call them the next day, they have done the best.

First, a short history lesson: While most indigenous tribes in America are fairly homogenic, think of the Seminole as America's first "melting pot." Escaped indigenous people from every tribe in the United States made their way south, first to Florida and then further and further south, pushed by by money-obsessed xenophobes. They ultimately landed in the Everglades, where their already-sharp survival skills grew even more intense. Forget the West; the Everglades were — and remain — America's true wild frontier. Crocs. Gators. Dehydration. Rattlesnakes. Cottonmouths. Malaria. Yellow fever. Mosquitoes. The reason we opened the West and not Florida first was because everything west of the Mississippi was gentler. So, when you consider there was this group of people who not only survived, but learned to live harmoniously and thrive there? You can extrapolate the fierceness of such a people. 

The whites offered them everything — liquor, cattle, land — in response to which the Seminole offered a one-fingered salute. After spending $20 million —  over $516 million in today's dollars — and losing 1500 men, the U.S. gave up. (That's when the U.S. population hovered around 17 million; to give that some scope, we've lost 4,486 soldiers in Iraq and have a population of 323.1 million. For those two losses to be equal, proportionally, we would have to have lost 28,500 soldiers in Iraq, or 19 times as many.)

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it didn't get the Seminole much: They still lost their land, their tribes, their families and their homes. And what, you may wonder, does this have to do with a love affair and Valentine's Day and a way to spend time with the person you cherish most in the world?

Because the Seminole were the first wave of #theResistance in America. They were fighting a government swollen with states'-rights idiots and anti-human-rights politicians. And they would not give up. In 1842, President John Tyler cried uncle and the Seminole — probably no more than a few hundred — were left with what little land they still had, and also their freedom. #theResistance had won. 

Fast forward to December 2006: #theResistance, which started with bingo halls, amasses enough money to buy Hard Rock International for $965 million making it, according to the New York Times, "one of the largest purchases ever by an American Indian tribe."

"Our ancestors sold Manhattan for trinkets. We’re going to buy Manhattan back, one burger at a time," Tribe council representative Max B. Osceola, Jr., said. 

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," The Daily Show's Jon Stewart said, "but we don't actually use hamburgers for money." He also called the buy "the first major expansion of Native American territory."

I love everything about this story — but I don't love gambling, which is why, one, I'd never set foot in the Tampa casino, and two, the press release about the massage intrigued me. I did a Google. I emailed the PR people. Was it, I wondered, possible to have a romantic getaway at a casino? Could I, in good faith, suggest a road trip to the complex at the Orient Road exit and not expect readers to spend the weekend wandering around a casino amidst way too many retirees in walkers and on oxygen, worshipping the one-armed bandits?

Turns out, yes. Yes, it is. I checked in to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa, suddenly aware that the "hotel" portion of the name comes first rather than the "casino" portion. I dropped my things in my hotel room — which had a great rock theme; even the toilet paper has a sticker on it labeled "general admission" — and took in some of what made Hard Rock famous: the memorabilia. 

Next, I headed for a massage, except it was really more of a full-body... experience. And no, I didn't go for the sweetgrass massage; instead, I went with a Rhythm & Motion massage — the massage table vibrates with bass and a cone above my head delivered the treble of one of three soundtracks (I went with a train motif, which meant for an hour I heard music interspersed with the sound of a train rolling along the track). It fits the theme, yes?

The spa itself is lovely — perhaps I haven't spent enough time in casinos (read: any), but I wasn't expecting a hot tub, steam room and other spa amenities. After a steam, I went to get a cocktail and people watch. My husband confirmed his perfect Manhattan on the rocks is, indeed, perfect.

People watching, though, confirmed what I suspected: the casino portion of this hotel isn't anywhere I care to be. It depressed me to watch people staring with eyes devoid of everything but desperate hope, mindlessly pushing the button on the slot machines in front of them. 

Next up, dinner. Again, I've read too much about casinos Las Vegas and expected — especially after Jon Palmer Claridge's recent review — a less-than-stellar experience. Thankfully, my expectations were confounded — between my husband and I, we had king crab and oyster appetizers, yellowtail, ribeye cap and lemon curd with blueberries.

"It's tough to improve on king crab," my husband later said, "but they succeeded where many of us have failed." When I asked — and he's the fussiest eater I know — he couldn't find a thing wrong with the meal, which is, perhaps, higher praise than a five-star review. Our South African sommelier helped us choose the right wine, which no doubt helped us enjoy the meal, but it was also lovely to chat with someone in a casual restaurant (or as casual as a restaurant can be when it has a sommelier) who can discuss wine in such detail.  

Of course, there's no escaping the gambling, but we minimized it. We brought our dogs for a night's stay, and getting them to the dog walk meant walking through the smoking casino (they also have a nonsmoking area), but other than that, there wasn't really any indication we were at a casino. The room was lovely, the bed soft. The spa and dinner? Perfect. The guard at the elevator, scanning our room key to make sure we belonged in the hotel portion, added to the feeling of security. 

I don't have trouble reconciling the notion of a casino, a venue for taxing the poor, with the luxurious, couple-centric 24 hours we spent there. I have slightly more trouble equating my experience with supporting that long-ago first salvo of #theResistance.

And then I learned this: The Seminole Tribe of Florida bought Trump's Taj Mahal for four cents on the dollar last May. They'll reopen it later this year — after they remove all hints of Trump from it, effectively scrubbing clean something Trump drove into the ground and abandoned. They'll fix what needs fixing, give those who depend on it for their livelihood hope, and make it somewhere, like the Tampa complex, people want to go, whether they're seeking money, relaxation or something larger.

There's a metaphor in there, for sure.

Cathy Salustri is the arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing. She's also under contract for her second book about Florida, which will include a chapter devoted to the Seminole Tribe. She plans to defect to the Tribe if things get any worse than they are. Contact her here

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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