The longtime chief of the Mississippi Choctaw managed to pour gambling revenue back to his people, creating jobs, improving youth recreation, and preserving tribal arts.
Phillip Martin, former chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, was not a perfect man. He did, however, lead his people out of devastating poverty on their hardscrabble reservation near Philadelphia, Mississippi. After his recent death, February 4, at age 83, it is appropriate to look back at his remarkable life. How did Martin help make his tribe one the major economic players in the state of Mississippi?
I visited the Choctaw reservation in 2000, working on a story for another publication, and met with Chief Martin. Choctaw is located in Neshoba County, just west of the town of Philadelphia. Readers will recall that Philadelphia was the site of the infamous 1964 shootings of civil rights workers by white supremacists.
I was unprepared for the empire that lay just outside of town on the Choctaw reservation. On those scrubby hills lay an extravagant hotel and casinos that have since been expanded into the Pearl River Resort that includes a water park and golf club.
While covering Indian Country, I have had opportunity to see many tribally owned casinos and surrounding communities. The Choctaw, however, stood apart. They had leveraged their casino income into businesses that employed members of the tribe and surrounding community. Much of this growth was accomplished under Phillip Martin’s leadership.
The NYT’s noted after his death that Martin led his tribe to wealth during his 28 year tenure as chief, building an industrial park and luring businesses to the area.
The accomplishments of this short scrappy man and his people pierced my objective journalist’s shell and went straight to my Ojibwe heart. I confess, my eyes filled with tears of pride when I saw that the tribe opened its school athletic fields, the best in the county, to students from poorer districts. The Choctaw High School girls and boys basketball teams are also among the best in the state.
During a visit to the Choctaw Cultural Center, I noticed a back room filled to the rafters with traditional Choctaw grass baskets. The beautiful, intricately woven baskets are one hallmark of Choctaw tradition. The tribe used its casino earnings to buy baskets produced by community members to ensure the skill doesn’t die out.
Phillip Martin and the Mississippi Choctaw gave me a glimpse of the true intended vision of Indian self-determination. Martin has his critics, of course, and was not without fault. In recent years, it was revealed that he had ties to the disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who encouraged his Indian clients to donate money to the tax-exempt organization that he used for his own purposes, according to the Washington Post.
But Martin was a player. The Times quoted from a speech he delivered to a national gathering of tribal administrators in 1986. “We decided if we were going to live here we should try to do something for ourselves,” Martin said. “Our success has changed the attitudes not only of the Choctaw but of our neighbors.”