Conversation with Chief Phillip Martin
on an interview with Ann Leslie Davis
How can the gifts that wealth brings be embraced, not just
by individuals, but by an entire community? That question
has challenged American Indian tribes since 1987, when the
United States Supreme Court first allowed casino gambling
on reservations. Some tribes have grown fabulously wealthy.
The Pequots reportedly clear more than $2 million a day
from their Foxwoods Casino. Once-impoverished communities
now enjoy previously undreamed of standards of living.
Casino gambling, however, is a hugely
controversial vehicle for creating community wealth.
One tribe in particular-the Choctaw Indians of central
Mississipi-has stood out, because of its success in using
casino profits to benefit its people. The Choctaws own
the Silver Star Resort & Casino, which now enjoys
annual profits of about $100 million. But this is just
one facet of an overall economic development plan specifically
designed to generate wealth for the entire tribe.
The tribe is located in what was once
the poorest county in the poorest state in America. Its
economic development efforts started with a small auto
parts manufacturing plant in 1979. Eventually, the Choctaws
created 4,000 jobs for tribal members and non-Indian neighbors
alike. They added their casino resort and golf course
in 1994 and eight years later opened a second casino and
recreational water park. The Choctaws' longstanding efforts
to improve conditions on the reservation have been hailed
by observers as a "stunning Indian renaissance" and a
"remarkable economic turnaround."
The man most responsible for this renaissance
is Choctaw tribal chief Phillip Martin. A World War II
veteran who served in Europe, Martin has presided over
the dramatic transformation of his reservation since being
elected chief in 1979. Here, he discusses how the Choctaws
have used their tribal wealth to maintain their culture
and benefit their entire community.
was a child, Choctaws were sharecroppers and day laborers.
There was very little opportunity-no jobs, not even a tribal
administration building. The tribe was penniless and practically
homeless. I spent almost ten years in the Air Force but when
I came home, I found that there was a lot of discrimination
against tribal members. I was caught in a web of no opportunities,
just like any other Choctaw.
In 1957, I was elected to the tribal council
and we started thinking about how we could develop our own
jobs. We thought, "If we don't develop a way to make a living,
we are all going to have to leave." It took us about 20
years to get the first manufacturing plant here. Nobody
believed we could establish manufacturing on a reservation
to create jobs.
During that time, I wrote lots of letters
to companies. The companies' responses were always nice,
but they weren't interested in coming to Mississippi. One
day I got a letter from Packard Electric, a division of
General Motors, asking if we would be interested in manufacturing
auto harnesses. We said yes, and in 1979 borrowed $2 million
to build a building and hired 25 people. We were successful.
We produced a quality product at a reasonable price and
delivered on time.
That turned things around pretty quickly.
Other auto makers, like Ford and Chrysler, came to us and
we were eventually able to create more than 4,000 jobs.
Then in 1988, Congress passed a law allowing federally-recognized
tribes to game if the state had a policy of Class III gaming.
Mississippi started its riverboat gaming in 1989, so that
put us into the ballgame.
Again we started small, not knowing if we
would have success, but lo and behold, we had to expand
our casino four times.
The impact of the casinos here has been
very positive. Unemployment among Choctaws has dropped from
80 percent in the 1970s to less than two percent today.
In my view, that's the key to success in keeping a community
and a culture together.
The casino and other businesses have given
us the revenue to do things we always wanted to do, but
couldn't. We have seven officially recognized Choctaw communities
in Mississippi. Six now have their own new schools. Two
of the schools were built using tribal revenues generated
by our gaming businesses. We're constructing community buildings,
recreation areas, swimming pools, better housing, and health
care clinics. We have a loan program so that people can
build their own homes at three percent interest. We also
provide full scholarships for students. Back when the government
provided scholarships, only two or three of our young people
a year went to college. Now, more than 400 are attending
colleges all over the country.
A lot of people don't believe the things
we're accomplishing until they come here and see for themselves.
Congressional, other tribal, and foreign leaders, as well
as state and local public officials, have visited the reservation
and like what we're doing. The people who criticize Indian
gaming haven't been here. They talk as if we're not regulated
and the mafia is running us, but Indian gaming is highly
regulated. Our regulatory laws are written into our Tribal-State
Compact, which is approved by the federal government. Tribes
are very astute and make sure they follow the law. There
is no reason to set up a big bureaucratic office in Washington,
D.C. to regulate Indian gaming. The FBI has already testified
twice in Congress that there is no organized crime in Indian
Non-Indian commercial gaming is operated
and owned by a few people. Our tribal gaming is owned by
the whole tribe. Individuals can benefit from the casino
resources through a good job or a program of the tribe,
or both. We reinvest our money here in order to have the
best casino and entertainmentrelated programs in the Southeast.
We also invest and spend it within the state. We don't hide
it in banks in Switzerland.
We do make two per capita distributions
a year out of tribal funds: $500 goes to each tribal member
before school starts in July and before Christmas in December.
This helps working people, who may not be making as much
as they would like. For a family of five, this means an
extra $5,000 a year. They can buy what they want, and they're
satisfied with that. They would rather have community development
and good jobs as a tribe than stipends for individuals.
There is no income return for the tribe
on the money we give out to individuals, but the recipients
do have to pay federal income tax on it. We are making an
investment in our community and our people. That's where
the return comes. Because of our good economy, our people
are better educated and have more money in their pockets
than before, and their children are healthier, better dressed,
and are doing better in school. A lot of people who had
left the reservation are coming back, because there is a
better life here than in the urban areas.
We are now the biggest economic driver in
eastern Mississippi. We buy a lot of goods and services,
which helps businesses in the surrounding communities. The
great majority of people around here accept the tribal government
and like the progress we're making because we're a job provider.
Sixty percent of our 9,000 fulltime jobs are held by non-Indians.
This has helped us develop good social and community relationships.
The casinos have also had a very positive
impact on tribal traditions. When you have a good economy,
when people have jobs, they tend to maintain their traditions
and keep their culture alive. Together, we can maintain
our culture easily. However, if we're separated all over
the country, it's more difficult. For example, the Choctaws
are the best weavers of river cane baskets in the world,
but not long ago we had dwindled down to about five elders
who could still make baskets. The reason is that there was
no market in the surrounding counties or state. The tribal
council decided it was important to maintain tradition and
agreed to buy all baskets at a good price. As a result,
many Choctaws are weaving baskets as they did long ago.
I believe that our continued reinvestment
into revenue-generating enterprises is going to help us
secure our future. Manufacturing will be leaving soon because
big companies are taking their jobs overseas. But at this
point, we're not terminating any people, we're hiring. Our
tribal economy is strong.
To read different sides of the issue, see
articles, "Wheel of Misfortune," December, 16, 2002, and "Playing
the Political Slots," December 23, 2002; the rebuttals in
magazine, "It's About
the Record Straight," May/June, 2003 and "Dealing with Hypocrisy:
Time Magazine's Double Standard Defames American Indians and
Indian Tribes" on the
National Indian Gaming Association website
. See also
"The Casino Where Everybody Wins"
(part of "Casino Reservations
with Anthony Brooks"), Inside Out Documentaries.
Leslie Davis lived on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation
from 1989-1991 and has written extensively on American Indian
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