More Than Money
Issue #33
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Embracing The Gift

Table of Contents

“The Choctaw Indians: Embracing the Gift, Community Style”

A Conversation with Chief Phillip Martin

Based 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.

When I 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 gaming.

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 Time magazine articles, "Wheel of Misfortune," December, 16, 2002, and "Playing the Political Slots," December 23, 2002; the rebuttals in Native Peoples magazine, "It's About Time : Setting 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.

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Ann Leslie Davis lived on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation from 1989-1991 and has written extensively on American Indian issues.

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