Gone are the days when almost three-quarters of the people on the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indian Reservation were unemployed and one-third of them had no formal education. And gone are the days when Choctaws were relegated to a livelihood of sharecropping, labor-type jobs, and welfare lines.
Once they were called the "worst poverty pocket in the poorest state in the nation." Now, the unemployment rate is about 4%, well below the national rate of 5.7%. And the average annual household income has jumped from less than $2,000 per year in 1962 to more than $25,000. More than 400 Choctaw youngsters are in college compared to the two or three who might enroll each year four decades ago.
The dramatic turnaround is the result of the determination, dedication, visionary leadership, and business savvy of a former Air Force staff sergeant named Phillip Martin. The 76-year-old has held leadership positions in the tribal government for more than 45 years and has been the tribal chief since 1979. He’s now in his sixth consecutive four-year term as chief.
On March 13, 1926, Phillip Martin became the second baby born in the new U.S. Public Health Indian Hospital in Philadelphia, Mississippi, adjacent to the Choctaw reservation. Educated at the Bureau of Indian Affairs-run schools in the Tucker area of the reservation and in Cherokee, North Carolina, Martin followed the footsteps of his four brothers into the Armed Forces.
"My oldest brother, Raymond, started out in the Mississippi National Guard and hit the beach at Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944," said Martin, whose father died when he was 13. "Raymond was killed in action on April 20, 1945. My brother Edmond joined the Army in 1943 and saw combat at the Battle of the Bulge.
"I joined the Army Air Corps in August 1945 and went to Europe during the occupation," Martin said. "We were replacements for GIs who were returning home."
When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, Martin was considering a military career. But in 1955, after serving in the Korean War with a radar unit based on Okinawa, he left the military.
"You have a lot of advantages in the military,” Martin said. “You see the world, meet a lot of good people, have a lot of good comradeship and you develop leadership. So I wasn’t used to the way things were when I came home."
At the time, unemployment on the reservation was about 80 percent, housing and health care were “miserable,” educational opportunities were nonexistent, life expectancy was 45 to 50 years, and infant mortality was the highest of any population in the United States, Martin recounted.
Yet although he wanted to leave the reservation for a chance to make a better life, the love and determination of a strong woman kept him home. His "short visit" with his family led to a year’s stay and marriage. Because Bonnie, his wife, didn’t want to leave the reservation because of family ties, he searched Mississippi for a job. To no avail. Martin knew that he would have to provide “some kind of good leadership and direction – where you’re going, where you’re taking the tribe,” he said. And leadership and direction were two qualities he learned and experienced during his military service.
Two years later, he was elected board chairman and then became tribal council chairman. When the federal Office of Economic Opportunity gave the tribe a small grant to build a small industrial park, Martin became the community action agency director. He held that position for five years.
"We sat up a good organization and applied for a lot of government grants," he said. "We put people to work and in training and started changing things for the better. Before that time, opportunities for the Choctaw people were very small -- almost nonexistent.
"People were poor and had no place to really call their own, except for the small parcel of land the federal government gave them in 1918."
‘We Need Jobs Here’
Martin and his fellow council members started looking for industry to locate on the reservation in the early 1960s. In 1969, the Choctaws developed a construction business. It wasn’t until 1979, though, that their climb up the economic ladder really started, with the opening of Choctaw Enterprise, a manufacturing plant with a small General Motors contract to assemble electrical and ignition wire harnesses for trucks, Martin said.
"We grew from there. Ford and Chrysler showed up, and we started doing a lot of work on a lot of different parts for the automotive industry. We had about 4,000 people working in a little while. We hired anybody who wanted to work and trained them on the job.
"Our aim was to create jobs so people could stay here on the reservation," Martin said. "That way, we could maintain our tribe and our culture and start sending our kids to school to give them an opportunity to do even better than we are."
The Choctaw constitution was changed in the early 1970s and created the position of chief with a four-year term. Although Martin lost his first race for the job in 1974, he returned to the council and was elected chief in 1979.
Cranking Up Prosperity
With the passage in 1988 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allows gambling on reservations, Martin and the Choctaws found the “crank-up we needed to start businesses to generate revenue, to maintain and operate our tribal government, and to buy things needed in the community," Martin said.
The first Choctaw casino and hotel, the Silver Star, opened in 1994. The second, the $290 million Golden Moon, held a "soft opening" this past August and an official opening in October.
"We now have two large casinos, two championship golf courses, a $20 million water park, and we’re planning on additional things for tourism," Martin said. "We’ve created around 9,000 jobs, of which 65 percent are held by non-Indians. We’re like a big business looking for good people to work for us."
Profits from these endeavors are redistributed to the seven Choctaw communities spread out across the 28,338-acre reservation, Martin said. They also provide the funds to “build the infrastructure that the people need," Martin said. This includes three elementary schools, a middle school, a high school, a hospital, a shopping center, and a scholarship program that pays 100 percent of students’ expenses so long as they maintain their grades.
"When you want to do something badly enough and work at it hard and be determined to do it, things will happen in the way you planned it," said Martin, holding up a program for a tribute to him on November 14, 2002. The program lists 23 business enterprises established under his leadership.
Now an economic powerhouse, the Choctaws’ sprawling industrial and commercial empire is the largest employer in Neshoba County, and is among the five largest employers in the state. Life expectancy has increased from 65 to 75 years. Infant mortality is below state and national levels.
All of this is a credit to one man’s vision and leadership. Yet Phillip Martin does not rest on his laurels. "We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “We have a population of over 9,000 people in seven communities, and we have a lot of big overhead. So, even though we’re making some income and creating jobs, it isn’t enough to maintain ourselves. We’re doing everything we can to be self-determined and pay our way."
SOURCE: American Forces Press Service via Veterans News and Information Service
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phillip_Martin