Mississippi Momentum

A Shared Legacy of Choctaw Self-Determination

An American Indian tribe that 40 years ago began a nationally acclaimed rise from poverty to become a

thriving, diversified economy in Mississippi’s Bible Belt is regaining its status as a leader in Indian self-determination under the guidance of its first woman chief.

Phyliss Anderson—in her second term as chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians—is restoring unity and financial stability to the tribe, which under the late Chief Phillip Martin established a national reputation for economic progress and self-governance.

Anderson’s administration has reduced a crippling multimillion-dollar debt load created by overly ambitious tribal gambling projects while improving health care, education and job opportunities for nearly 11,000 citizens of the Choctaw Nation.

She also is gaining nationwide prominence as an indigenous leader, building relations with other tribes and federal, state and local governments.

Anderson’s predecessor, Beasley Denson, antagonized state and local officials with his pursuit of gambling projects beyond the Choctaw headquarters near Philadelphia in Neshoba County, where the tribe operates the Silver Star and Golden Moon casino hotels.

Anderson is a protégé of Martin, who served as chief for 32 years before being ousted by Denson in the 2007 election. She defeated Denson in 2011 and 2015 and began building a legacy of her own based on fiscal management, education and the creation of a skilled workforce.

Anderson was chosen to introduce President Barack Obama at the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in 2011.

She has testified on Indian issues before Congress and is active in the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), an organization of 23 tribes founded in 1968 by Martin and three other indigenous leaders.

Anderson also serves on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, an appointment that resulted from a visit to the Choctaw Reservation by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

 

Choctaw Organization

The Choctaw operate the largest consolidated school district in Indian Country, consisting of a high school, middle school and six elementary schools. The tribe operates other educational and job training programs for adolescents and adults.

“My administration is interested in creating opportunity and a better quality of life for our people and the next generation of Choctaws,” Anderson says. “First and foremost is through education.

“We are focused on cultural preservation in the classroom,” she says, which includes a Choctaw language immersion program.

“We also are equipping our students with important skills and knowledge that will translate into today’s workforce. We have a comprehensive and aggressive workforce development program that provides skill training, certification and job placement opportunities for adult learners.”

A skilled workforce is essential as the tribe recruits more high-tech businesses to the reservation.

“I believe Choctaw self-determination is moving forward and it is ongoing,” Anderson says.

The Choctaw inhabit a checkerboard, 35,000-acre reservation stretching over 10 counties and headquartered near Philadelphia, 80 miles east of Jackson. It is Mississippi’s only federally recognized Indian tribe.

As is the case with 366 other tribes in the lower 48 states, the Choctaw is a sovereign government operating largely independent of state, county and municipal authorities. The Choctaw operates schools, courts, health care facilities and police and fire departments.

The tribe also is a major contributor to the state economy, its 17 businesses employing 5,750 people, roughly half of them non-Indians. Choctaw ranks among the state’s top 10 employers.

“Phyliss Anderson has done a great job in filling the role of leader of the Choctaw people,” says Ernie Stevens, a Wisconsin Oneida and chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. “She’s a strong leader and a role model for economic development.”

“Phillip Martin established a benchmark not only for Mississippi Choctaw, but all Indian Country,” says Brian Patterson, a New York Oneida and former executive director of USET.

“Chief Anderson’s leadership embodies Chief Martin’s legacy. She models her leadership by his example. She is following Phillip’s path, but with her own moccasins.

“She has won the hearts of the Choctaw people.”

 

Escaping Poverty

Martin returned to Choctaw around 1955 after a decade in the peacetime U.S. Air Force. He trained as an electrician under the G.I. Bill and met and married Bonnie Bell, a Choctaw. He joined the tribal council and was first elected chief in 1979.

There were fewer than 2,000 Choctaw on the reservation when Martin returned from the military, most of them living in poverty. Some worked as sharecroppers. A Harvard University study put unemployment at about 75 percent.

Martin’s strategy was to strengthen the Choctaw government—crafting business codes, strengthening tribal courts and creating a fair system of dispute resolution—building a foundation to lure business partners in the creation of low-skilled, low-wage manufacturing jobs.

The tribe in 1969 lobbied for a federal grant to build an 80-acre industry park.

Building on a federal Indian policy of tribal self-determination initiated under President Richard Nixon, the Choctaw started Chahta Enterprises, a company that built tribal housing and produced wiring and speaker systems for the auto industry. Chahta later lured American Greetings Card Company and a satellite-imaging firm.

The Choctaw by 1998 would operate six factories with some 2,000 workers.

Meanwhile, the tribe launched other businesses, including a shopping center, an office supply firm, a forestry enterprise and a post office.

Long before the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988 launched an era of social and economic progress on tribal reservations, the Choctaw had already grown a large and diverse economy out of Mississippi’s sparsely populated red clay soil.

“The original economic development strategy was based around creating job opportunity,” says John Hendrix, director of Choctaw Economic Development. “There were a lot of low-skilled, low-paying, low-margin businesses. The tribe was financially successful and viable. It worked. We made it work.”

The tribal population ballooned to 9,000 members, unemployment fell to 4 percent. The average life expectancy grew by 20 years.

It was testament to Martin, strong tribal governance and Choctaw self-determination.

“A lot of tribal leaders talk about diversifying their economies. He actually did it,” says Tadd Johnson, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. “For him, gaming was secondary. For a lot of tribes it has become the only thing.

“That reservation was a model for economic diversification,” says Johnson, a citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Indians in Minnesota. “He demonstrated how economic power can become political power. He was the man everybody looked to for an education on how things should be done.

“What we’re always trying to teach and what he demonstrated is the need to develop a government first.”

“It’s hard to overstate Chief Martin and the Choctaw influence,” says Joseph Kalt, professor emeritus of political economy and director of the Harvard University Project on American Indian Economic Development. “Choctaw was the first of the tribes to figure out how to use self-determination to achieve not only economic development but, more broadly, community progress.

“He figured out if your government isn’t in order, everything else was going to fall apart. Economic development is not about resources. It’s not about capital. It’s about getting your governmental house in order. Until and unless you do that, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

 

Gambling and the Pearl River Resort

The tribe in the early 1990s was reinvesting most manufacturing revenues to create more jobs and businesses. There was little discretionary income. That changed with IGRA and tribal government gambling.

Martin in 1993 negotiated a tribal-state compact with Governor Kirk Fordice. The agreement had no termination date or provision for sharing casino revenue with the state, which became common in later agreements.

Choctaw then partnered with Boyd Gaming to help finance and operate the Silver Star hotel-casino, which opened in 1994. The tribe bought out Boyd’s partnership three years later.

A sister property, the adjacent Golden Moon hotel-casino, opened in 2001 and the smaller Bok Homa Casino in Jones County debuted in 2010. The casinos, a limited-service hotel, two golf courses and a man-made lake and water park combine to make up Pearl River Resorts.

Tribal revenues soared with the casino, hotel and tourism ventures, exceeding $400 million in 2001.

Tribal finances are kept confidential. So are per-capita payments to individual tribal citizens. But figures provided by Mississippi State University in 2001 show the tribe was employing 8,686 workers with an annual payroll of $236.7 million, generating $19.7 million in taxes.

Government gambling revenues fund a myriad of tribal services, including schools, childhood and elderly care centers, scholarships, medical facilities, public safety and other community infrastructure.

“When gambling, tourism and hospitality became legal there was a boost in revenues,” Hendrix says. “It was a higher-profit margin business. It also provided good jobs and the opportunity for a diverse career. You could get into marketing, culinary arts, accounting and finance.

“Gambling also solved a lot of infrastructure problems. It built housing for the newly emerging middle class tribal members. It built new elementary schools. It supplemented the tribal health care system so tribal citizens could get the care they needed.

“There was a vast improvement in the quality of service provided by the tribe as a government.”

With the growth in gambling and tourism, Choctaw factories went into decline. Two were exported to Mexico, where they were operated by the tribe for about a decade and later sold. Employment fell.

With the demise of manufacturing and overseas exportation of factory jobs, the tribal workforce began transitioning to service and high-tech industries. The tribe in 2005 created Choctaw TechParc, a 150-acre business park, and began recruiting tech companies to the reservation.

The tribe then formed Choctaw-Ikhana Laboratory Services to provide calibration and metrology services to various government and private-sector clients. Ikhana has operations in Mississippi and Texas.

With much of the tribe employed in government and resort-related enterprises, Anderson’s administration is focused on ensuring Choctaw citizens have the tools needed to respond to the growth of high-skilled and high-tech industries.

“When you look at what Chief Martin was faced with and now with Chief Anderson, circumstances and opportunities are much different,” Hendrix says. “There are very few low-skilled manufacturing jobs to be had anymore. So we’re seeing to it that our tribal people are upgrading their skills.

“Of the jobs being created on the reservation today, the goal is to have tribal members trained and able to fill them.”

“Phyliss is doing much the same as Phillip, but with a changing industry,” Patterson says. “She is pursuing opportunity for her people.

“You see Choctaw people in leadership positions, whether it’s as manager of a restaurant or a shopping center.”

 

A Transition in Leadership

Some 20 years ago, over lunch at Phillip M’s restaurant at the Silver Star, Martin mentioned that his tribal council was more politically involved than when he returned to the reservation, largely because of improved employment and educational opportunities.

“Pretty soon they’ll be after my job,” he quipped.

Martin’s esteem as an indigenous leader grew with Choctaw social and economic progress in the era of tribal self-determination.

Martin was impressed with Europe’s World War II recovery, bolstered along with U.S. aid under a program known as the Marshall Plan, after then-Secretary of State General George Marshall.

“They did it brick-by-brick,” Martin recalled.

Tribes throughout the country would later refer to Choctaw’s recovery as “the Martin Plan.” The Choctaw economic blueprint was emulated by other tribal governments. Elected leaders frequently toured the reservation. Martin’s philosophy of strong tribal governance was viewed as gospel.

Martin became a political force at both the state and federal levels, on occasion stepping in to resolve a tribal crisis on Capitol Hill.

“Politically, he was our nuclear weapon,” Johnson recalls.

Martin for decades was beloved, admired and respected throughout Indian Country.

But his support among the Choctaw began to fracture leading to the 2007 election.

Martin was viewed by many tribal citizens as wielding too much authority. He was accused of not hiring Choctaws for key government jobs. Tribal members complained of long waits for housing and inadequate schools and health facilities.

Tribal finances grew unsteady. The Golden Moon proved an unwise investment, pitching the tribe into a debt load that would reach $75 million.

Martin’s reputation also was tarnished when it was disclosed he had paid disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff some $15 million to lobby against efforts by Indians in surrounding states to launch gambling ventures that would compete with Choctaw.

The scandal became personal when Abramoff wrote in an email reference to Choctaw, “We need to get some money from those monkeys!!”

Martin lost the 2007 election to Denson by 200 votes.

One of Denson’s first acts was to strip Phillip M’s as the name of the Silver Star steakhouse, replacing it with “Miko,” Choctaw for chief. Denson preferred the title miko as opposed to chief.

Martin died of a stroke three years later. He was 83.

 

Changing Leadership

Denson was credited by some with upgrading educational facilities, improving the health care system and reducing a backlog of applications for tribal housing.

He engineered the opening in 2010 of a third casino, a largely slot machine facility in the tribal community of Bok Homa near Sandersville. The operation was opposed by state officials, but supported by most local residents.

Although Bok Homa proved a success, tribal finances remained in apparent disarray. The Golden Moon continued to struggle and its hours were significantly cut back in 2009. The facility was closed the following year.

With the financial picture remaining unsteady, Anderson defeated Denson in a 2011 run-off election, 1,971 to 1,618. Anderson became the fourth chief since Choctaw recognition in 1945 and the tribe’s first woman leader. She defeated Denson again in a 2015 run-off election, 1,907 votes to 1,745.

Although both elections were narrow and disputed, Anderson in her inaugural speeches and a recent interview expressed the need for unity among tribal citizens.

“It has always been my hope and continues to be my hope that we unite as a people,” she says.

 

Improving The Financial Picture

Anderson’s administration has had both successes and failures, the most recent being a referendum last year rejecting development of a fourth casino in the Red Water community near Carthage, Anderson’s hometown.

Anderson supported the project, contending the $25 million casino would create 250 jobs and generate $50 million a year to fund government services. The project would not have required a loan, she said, but would be built with cash flow from Pearl River operations.

The tribe voted down the issue 1,506 to 710, apparently fearing the casino would cannibalize Silver Star and Golden Moon.

On the plus side, her administration in 2014 engineered the refinancing a $70 million debt and negotiated a companion $75 million loan that allowed for the reopening of Golden Moon as a full resort and arena along with renovations to Silver Star.

“This deal is something every tribal member should have pride in because it is the best rates banks have ever given our tribe,” Anderson said in signing the document as chairman of the Choctaw Resort Development Enterprise. “This deal clearly demonstrates banks and lenders have confidence in the work we are doing here at Pearl River Resort and on the Choctaw Indian Reservation.”

Anderson and her 17-member tribal council have been credited with refinancing much of the tribe’s debt, saving millions of dollars in potential interest payments.

In addition, her administration last year announced it had taken only 23 months to pay off a 10-year, $10 million loan to help finance the Choctaw Health Center, an acute and primary care facility.

“When Chief Anderson came into office the EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation) was not in a good place,” says a tribal official noting the confidentiality of tribal financial information.

“She was able to provide better management of the tribe’s resources. We’ve been able to grow our cash reserves. We’ve significantly grown our EBITDA from the time the chief walked into office to where we are now.”

Raised without electricity or plumbing and having worked as a child in a cotton field, the mother of three children and four stepchildren has been asked to voice her views on Indian issues.

“I believe it’s very important that I’m available to members of Congress,” she says. “I believe it’s very important that we work together, as Native American Indians. We have different names, cultures, languages. Not every reservation has casinos. Not every reservation has schools.

“But we do embrace that we are one people. We are all Native American Indians. It’s important that we continue to support each other in Indian Country.”

One of her first acts as chief in 2011 was to restore Phillip M’s as the name of the Silver Star steakhouse.

“Under the visionary leadership of our late Chief Phillip Martin, our tribe realized great progress,” Anderson said in a ceremony announcing the renaming. “I am proud to honor his legacy.”

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Dave Palermo is an award-winning metropolitan newspaper reporter. He has written about American Indian governments for more than 20 years, working as an advocate for several tribes and tribal associations. He also has co-authored books on gambling and gambling law. He can be reached at dgpalermo1@gmail.com.