Courtesy Rudi Williams
Chief Phillip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians poses with the Choctaw flag in his office in 2002 on the tribal reservation.

Indian Country Needs More Leaders Like the Late Phillip Martin

Dr. Dean Chavers

When Chief Phillip Martin came home to Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1955, his people had no more hope than they had when he left four years earlier to serve in the Air Force. They were mostly sharecroppers and farm laborers. They were sharecroppers on cotton farms on what had formerly been their lands in Southeastern Mississippi. They had held on to 30,000 acres of their reservation lands, and had stayed in Mississippi, their ancestral home, when the rest of the Choctaws got rounded up and marched off to Oklahoma by racist President Andrew Jackson. 

Over 40 percent of them were unemployed during the summertime, and in the winter months this figure rose to as high as 75 percent. Most of them had not finished high school and could barely read and write. Eighty-five percent of their housing was substandard. Ninety percent of the houses had no indoor plumbing. A third of houses had no electricity.

Few of them had gone past the sixth grade. Rudi Williams, of the American Forces Press Service said the tribe was “the worst poverty pocket in the poorest state of the union.” Their life expectancy was only 45 to 50 years. Their only health care was from a nearby federal hospital. The rate of infant mortality was several times higher than the national rate.

But they had some things they considered more valuable than jobs. Their 30,000 acres of reservation land was largely intact. Most of them still spoke their Choctaw language, and most of them still practiced their traditional Choctaw tribal arts. They could still make the clothes, hunting implements, boats, and other things they had learned how to make over the past several thousand years of living in the state. Their culture was largely intact.

They are now the largest employer in southeast Mississippi. They have 12 large businesses on the reservation, and have proved decades ago that Choctaw Indians are some of the most reliable workers anywhere.

The Golden Moon casino and hotel is just one of the many business enterprises that have raised the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians from paupers to an economic powerhouse in two decades. (Courtesy Rudi Williams)

The 8,300 Choctaws now have an unemployment rate below 4 percent. Average household income has grown ten times, from only $2,000 in 1975 to over $20,000 today. They have 7,000 paying jobs on the reservation. They have been importing non-Indians to fill positions for two decades, since they ran out of Choctaws to hire.

They have sent almost all their eligible adults on to finish their GED program and a few hundred of them have finished their college degrees. The tribe now runs its own tribal school system with seven schools. The average number of years of schooling has climbed from sixth grade in 1975 to almost 12th grade today. The rate of substandard housing has plummeted from 85 percent to only 15 percent.

They had already largely solved the problems of homelessness, illiteracy, and poor health when the advent of tribal casinos came along. But when they got into the casino business, they did it with a flair and acumen they had brought to their other businesses. Today, their casinos are some of the most successful and largest in the U.S.

The story of how they have gone from poverty to prosperity in one lifetime has much to do with their late remarkable chief. Chief Phillip Martin was born on March 13, 1926 outside Philadelphia. He began early in his adult life to see the value of business, and how important it was for the life of the tribe for his people to be working. He saw that jobs, not government support and welfare, would be the salvation of his people.

He served over 40 years in the leadership of the tribe. He first became chief in 1959. He served on the tribal council for several years before he was elected chief. He had a break as Chief in the 1970s, but once he ran again and won, he never lost.

The Chief spent almost 20 years lobbying the Bureau of Indian Affairs for help in getting jobs for his people—without success. So he finally did it himself. He started an enterprise zone on the reservation, something that few tribes have done even to this day. And he made a huge success of it.

It was a long slog. He contacted over 500 firms before he got the first manufacturer to locate on the reservation. That was in 1978, a 42,000-square-foot plant that assembled wire harnesses for General Motors. The tribe now has 1,000 people assembling wire harnesses for Ford. This plant, managed by an experienced non-Indian, provides the elaborate wiring mechanisms behind the dashboards of GM cars and trucks.

They also have a 60,000-square-foot plant that produces speakers for Ford, Chrysler, and McDonnell-Douglas. It has annual sales of $30 million. Another plant with 175 workers produces cable for Ford and Chrysler, and circuit boards and electronics equipment for AT&T, Xerox, Westinghouse, and Navistar. Ford and Chrysler have granted six quality performance awards to Choctaw plants.

One of the next large businesses the tribe started was the Choctaw Shopping Center in 1988. This large regional shopping center provides a wide variety of goods for the region around the reservation. That same year the tribe established the Choctaw Residential Center, a nursing home.

In 1990, the tribe established the First American Printing and Direct Mail Enterprise. This business is a manufacturer of greeting cards for American Greetings, as well as being a major printing and direct mail provider. It has 150 workers. Another plant produces over a million pieces of plastic cutlery every day for McDonald’s.

In 1993, the tribe established the Choctaw Construction Enterprise to build houses and commercial buildings both on the reservation and in the surrounding communities. Also in 1993, the tribe established the First American Plastic Molding Enterprise, which has become hugely successful.

In 1994, after already being established in the business community, the tribe decided to enter the gaming business with the Silver Star Hotel & Casino. It is now one of the largest casinos in the Southeast. The Choctaw Golf Enterprise followed in 1995, the Choctaw Housing Development Enterprise came on board in 1995, and the Choctaw Resort Development Enterprise started up in 1999.

One of the most recent ventures the tribe got into was a Ford auto dealership in 2004. Despite intense local opposition, much of it based on a false assumption that the tribe would not pay state taxes on the automobiles it sold, the tribe bought the dealership. The Chief assured his opponents that the tribe would pay state taxes.

The tribe also operates its own government system and its own hospital. Under a contract with the Indian Health Service, the tribe runs a 43-bed hospital and several community clinics. They also run their own water, sewer, and waste-disposal systems. It operates all these services without tribal taxes. Revenue from its businesses, fees for some services, and federal contract funds provide their sources of revenue for government, education, and health care.

The whole reservation is an enterprise zone. The tribe is a sovereign government, and its businesses are exempt from state and local taxes. In addition, the tribe itself is the zoning authority and issuer of business licenses. Chief Martin has proved that the concept of enterprise zones can be successful.

Chief Martin served in a variety of positions of leadership at the national level. He was President of the National Tribal Chairman’s Association, President of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), and co-founder of USET in 1969. He was the first president of the Board of Regents of Haskell Indian Junior College during the time it moved from being a high school level institution to being a national junior college, 1970 to 1976. He founded the United South and Eastern Tribes Gaming Association in 1992.

The Chief has won a number of awards for his leadership including the Jay Silverheels Award from the United Indian Development Association, the Minority Supplier/Distributor of the Year Award from the Small Business Administration, the “Soar Like an Eagle” Award from the United Indian Tribal Youth organization, an Economic Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Outstanding Employer Award from the Mississippi National Guard, an induction into the Mississippi Business Hall of Fame in 1996, the Hammer Award from Vice President Al Gore for the NASA Enhancement Center within the Choctaw School System, Man of the Year by the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Chamber of Commerce in 1997, an Award for Outstanding Tribal Economic Diversification and Development from the National Indian Gaming Association in 1998, and an Exemplary Program in Indian Education award from Catching the Dream for results from the tribal schools.

The Chief and his accomplishments have been the subject of articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and the Daily Yonder.

When Chief Martin passed away on February 4, 2010, he left his tribe in the most successful position of almost any of the 567 tribes in the U.S. We need more leaders with his vision.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of the Catching the Dream scholarship program, which has produced 875 Indian college graduates since 1986. CTD won the prestigious Yawa’ Award in 2016. Contact him at [email protected].

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