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Former Sergeant Leads Destitute Tribe to Economic Prosperity, Self-Respect

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

CHOCTAW, Miss., Nov. 20, 2002 – Gone are the days when about 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.

They were called the "worst poverty pocket in the poorest state in the nation."

Now, the unemployment rate is about 4 percent, below the national rate of 5.7 percent. 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 to excellence, visionary leadership skills 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 in his sixth consecutive four-year term as chief.

On March 13, 1926, Martin became the second baby born in the new U.S. Public Health Indian Hospital in Philadelphia, Miss., adjacent to the Choctaw reservation. Educated in the Bureau of Indian Affairs-run schools in the Tucker area of the reservation and in Cherokee, N.C., Martin followed the footsteps of his four brothers into the armed forces.

"My oldest brother, Raymond Martin, 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 Martin joined the Army in 1943 and saw combat at the Battle of the Bulge.

"I joined the Army Air Forces 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.

"You can easily live with the regimentation," he said. "I liked being a GI, but all at once I asked myself why I'd decided to do this. Then I decided that maybe I could do better if I went back home and then somewhere else -- Chicago, Dayton (Ohio), San Francisco. I thought I'd be able to get a new start in civilian life in one of those cities.

"Here I was, coming home in 1955 from the military," said Martin, who spent the Korean War with a radar unit on Okinawa, Japan. "You have a lot of advantages in the military. 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, and I was going to leave because I didn't think I could change anything."

At the time, unemployment on the reservation was about 80 percent, housing and health care was miserable, educational opportunities were nonexistent, life expectancy was 45 to 50 years, and infant mortality was highest of any population in the United States.

Martin wanted to escape for a chance to make a better life, but the love and determination of a strong woman kept him on the reservation. His "short visit" with his family led to about a year's stay and marriage to his wife, Bonnie. She didn't want to leave the reservation because of family ties, so he searched Mississippi for a job to no avail.

The couple today has two daughters, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In 1957, the tribal government wasn't functioning well and Martin's fellow tribesmen persuaded him to run for tribal councilman. Once elected, he was encouraged to take the chairman's seat, but refused.

"I hadn't even read the tribe's constitution and didn't know much about the background or done anything in the tribal government," the chief said. "I said, 'Let me take two years to learn about what's going on here.'"

Two years later, he was elected board chairman and then became tribal council chairman. When the federal Office of Economic Opportunity gave the Choctaw 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 grants from the government," 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 none.

"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."

With the concept, "We need jobs here," Martin and his council members started looking for industry to locate on the reservation in the early 1960s. In 1969, the Choctaws developed a construction business. Their climb up the economic ladder of success started in 1979 with the opening of Choctaw Enterprise. It was 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," he noted. "We had about 4,000 people working in a little while. We hired anybody who wanted to work and trained him or her on the job.

"Our aim was to create jobs so people could stay here on the reservation," the chief 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. Martin lost his first race for the job in 1974, but returned to the council and was elected chief in 1979.

"We didn't have any education and no opportunity to go to a decent school," he noted. "What we needed was a crank-up to start businesses to generate revenue, to maintain and operate our tribal government and to buy things needed in the community," Martin said.

In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allows Indians to have gambling on reservations.

He pointed out that although the tribe had set a goal of self-sufficiency long before the act was passed, manufacturing is not a high-money-making operation.

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" in 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. It has increased the state's economy."

He said profits are redistributed to the seven Choctaw communities spread out around the 28,338-acre reservation.

"We're building infrastructure that the people need," Martin said. That included three elementary schools, a middle school, a high school, a hospital, 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," Martin said, holding up a program for a tribute to him on Nov. 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, Miss., and among the five largest employers in the state.

Life expectancy has increased from 65 to 75 years. The infant mortality is below state and national levels.

The tribe is planning a memorial at the reservation's Lake Pushmataha that have list the names of all known Choctaws who've served in the military, Martin said. "We have some names from 1815 -- the Battle of New Orleans," he remarked.

"The United States has never given much credit to the Indian people who participated in wars," he said. "It's quite a big number considering the amount of people we have."

In response to people who ask him why Indians fight in the nation's wars, Martin said, "We're citizens of the United States. It's our home. Our home is not somewhere else. For that reason, we support the government and the military. By building this memorial, we hope things will change for us, too."

Martin said the things he learned and experienced during his military service help him as chief. "You have to provide some kind of good leadership and direction -- where you're going, where you're taking the tribe," he said. "It was easy because there was so much need. We needed basic things that are important to success -- jobs!"

The Choctaws are doing well, but they're not self-sustaining -- yet, he said. "We've got a long way to go. We have a population of over 9,000 people in seven communities, schools, hospitals, satellite health center -- a lot of big overhead," Martin noted. "So, even though we're making some income and creating jobs, it isn't enough to maintain ourselves. But we're doing everything we can to be self-determined and pay our way."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageChief Phillip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians poses with the Choctaw flag in his huge office on the tribal reservation. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe Golden Moon casino and hotel is just one of more than 20 business enterprises that have raised the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians from paupers to an economic powerhouse in two decades. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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