The New York Times ran an obituary on Feb. 15 for Chief Phillip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Martin is widely credited with guiding his tribe from grinding poverty in the hills of east central Mississippi to become the proprietor of one of the state’s leading business empires. Marting died Feb. 4 in Jackson, Miss.
Martin was first elected in 1979 when the Choctaws in Mississippi were still relegated to the hardscrabble existence that had repressed them for generations. Over the decades, Choctaws eked out livings through sharecropping and unskilled labor. Into the early 1970s unemployment on the reservation stood at nearly 75 percent.
Chief Martin changed all that, and the turnaround was all the more remarkable because it was well under way before the rise of tribal casinos after passage of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.
“He was truly one of the first and most important leaders in the drive for tribal self-determination,” Joseph Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, said in an interview. “Chief Martin led this movement in which first the Mississippi Choctaw and then many other Indian nations have said: ‘We’re just going to run everything ourselves. We’re building our own schools, our own police department, our own health program, our own economy.’ ”
The tribe opened the Silver Star Hotel and Casino in 1994 and a second casino, the Golden Moon, in 2002. Today they form the heart of Pearl River Resort, which includes a theme park and a golf club and is the largest and most profitable Choctaw enterprise. In recent years, according to the Harvard project, the businesses have been generating about $180 million a year in wages alone. More than 7,000 people are employed, and the unemployment rate on the reservation has plunged to about 4 percent. (The national unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in January.)
The transformation can also be seen in neighborhoods near the casinos, where government-issue cinderblock houses have given way to suburban homes. The chief also established a scholarship fund that pays full tuition for all students from the tribe who are accepted to college.
Get the full obituary.