The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are a model of successful economic development, which many attribute to their late Chief, Phillip Martin. Sociology professor Duane Champagne of UCLA recalls how he came to understand Martin’s economic vision:
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have a remarkable story of economic development. Some Choctaw refused to remove to Indian country during the 1830s, and were left to fend for themselves in the backwaters of one of the poorest states in the United States.
Before the 1960s, most Choctaw families barely earned a living working as tenant farmers. In more recent decades, the Mississippi Choctaw have made great progress in hosting industrial manufacturing plants and managing successful gaming enterprises.
The Mississippi Choctaw government acts as a holding company that oversees a variety of manufacturing, services, and gaming businesses. Their model is one of tribal control and management of economic industry, and has proven resilient and productive. Most people give credit to the late and long time Chief Phillip Martin.
I was extremely pleased some years ago to run into Chief Martin at a social gathering in Washington, D.C. I took the opportunity to talk to him about his political and economic successes and wanted to gain some insight into his knowledge, experience, and wisdom. Chief Martin, however, did not give me much information. While I pressed him on how he organized political loyalty through Choctaw families and villages, he would not comment on cultural issues. All he said was that finding and providing jobs was the key to his political success. I also pressed him for the keys to his successful economic strategy. He said his economic strategy was primarily about providing job opportunities to tribal members. I peppered him with a variety of questions, hoping he would provide extended comment. Chief Martin, however, stuck his guns, and said it was all about jobs. I found this position interesting but somewhat puzzling.
A few years later, Chief Martin published his autobiography: Chief: The Autobiography of Chief Phillip Martin. I found the book fascinating, assigned it to my classes and paid particular attention to his focus on jobs. It is not explicitly written in the book, but Martin was an Air Force soldier during and after World War II. He left the service in 1955, and returned to Mississippi, where for the next six years he was unemployed. Martin served in tribal office during this time, and began developing a strategy of creating jobs for tribal members through tribally owned businesses. This was difficult; he spent many frustrating years writing to companies to invite them to locate businesses on the Choctaw reservation.
His strategy was not just to educate tribal members and make them economically viable, but he believed it was necessary to create a local Choctaw economy that provided jobs largely aimed at tribal members. Tribal members could not always find jobs in the U.S. economy even though they were qualified. Martin believed you should not train tribal members for employment in the national economy only, but rather many were better off trained to work in tribally controlled businesses. Tribal jobs were a primary key to the Mississippi Choctaw economic strategy.