Courtesy Vince O. Nickey (Choctaw)
Chief Anderson speaking with elders at the Choctaw community Thanksgiving feast, November 2011.

Phyliss J. Anderson: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Phyliss J. Anderson, tribal chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Where is your tribe located?

The majority of the tribe is located in Mississippi, with a small community in Henning, Tennessee. There are eight official communities—Bogue Chitto, Bogue Homa, Conehatta, Crystal Ridge, Pearl River, Red Water, Standing Pine, and Tucker—located in 10 counties in central Mississippi. Tribal headquarters is located in the Pearl River community.

Where was your tribe originally from?

For centuries the Choctaw have lived in the Southeastern United States, largely in what is now the state of Mississippi.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

Our tribe has evolved over the centuries to become a progressive and diverse people. The Choctaw people have overcome seemingly impossible obstacles because our ancestors believed that one day we would not only survive, but thrive. From the time of removal from our lands and battles with disease to our fight for sovereignty and self-determination, we have shown that Choctaws are a resilient people.

The Choctaw journey—that of economic progress and knocking down barriers—is still young. We have many more achievements in our future. I share in the spirit of optimism inherited from our ancestors. Our story is just beginning, and I look forward to what the future holds for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government is democratic, with three official branches—executive, legislative, and judicial. The tribal chief is the head of the executive branch and the chief principal officer. A 17-member Tribal Council makes up the legislative branch. Council members are elected from each of the Choctaw communities. The judicial branch is made up of the Choctaw Supreme Court and Choctaw Tribal Courts.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Not in an official capacity. As with most Native cultures, we view our elders with high esteem and respect. From time to time I may seek advice from our elders. They are our true historians and keepers of our cultural heritage, and I believe it is important to learn as much as we can from them.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I was born on New Year’s Day in 1961 and grew up during a time of racial turmoil in the South. My community and family bonded together during those years to become a strong unit, and that’s what I have tried to share with the Choctaw people. There is so much strength in unity and love.

My path to leadership certainly had some challenges, but I learned to face adversity with positivity and determination. I come from a rural area and a poverty-stricken home. My six sisters and I were raised in a tribal frame home located in the Red Water community in Leake County, Mississippi.

My mother was a strong woman and instilled so many important values into us girls. We knew the importance of education, faith, integrity, right, and wrong. But she also demonstrated the value of hard work, determination, dedication, and perseverance. I can remember my sisters and I would work in the cotton fields with Mom. I even remember saving up all of my money to buy five-cent Coke bottles and refashioning them into Barbie dolls.

At the time I did not fully realize I was poor, but looking back now, I can see it. To some people, my family experienced a less-than-desirable environment; however, we were surrounded by encouragement, trust, honesty, support, and a belief that we could accomplish any goals that we set for ourselves. These are the traits that were instilled in me by my mother.

Now as a mother and grandmother myself and as the tribal chief of our great tribe, I have used these same traits to raise a family and provide solid leadership for our Choctaw people.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.

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