Getting it Right
The controversy swirling around issues of tribal legitimacy and behemoth
casinos in Connecticut obscures examples elsewhere of quiet success
with tribal gambling. The Mississippi Band of the Choctaw Indians
are a case in point. This past fall the tribe opened its second casino,
the Golden Moon, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It's smaller than the
billion-dollar facilities in Connecticut. Still, the 9,000 members
of the Choctaws clear $100 million a year and the casino represents
the latest step in a stunning Indian renaissance.
Two generations ago, the Choctaws were the poorest tribe in the
poorest state in the nation. Fergus Bordewich, author of "Killing
the White Man's Indian," spent time on the Choctaw reservation
in the 1960s, when it was "a forgotten community; just a scattered
collection of cabins and shacks in a depressing corner of the Mississippi
backcountry." Bordewich recalls that the reservation's roads were
unpaved, kids were unclothed, and most of the tribe was far removed
from the world of money and jobs.
John Hendrix, a non-Indian who works in the tribe's economic development
office, says at that time just 7 percent of the tribe had high school
educations; 86 percent earned less than $2,000 a year. "To
see where we are today," says Hendrix. "really paints
the picture of what has been done in a short amount of time."
The story of the Choctaw renaissance is the story of tribal leadership
and of the talents of Chief Phillip Martin, who has led this tribe
for most of the past 45 years. Martin is a short, stocky man with
slicked-down black hair and a down-to-earth style that seems at
odds with the tribal powerhouse he's built. As a young soldier in
post-war Germany he was inspired by Europe's determination to rebuild
its shattered continent. And he felt the same was possible for the
Choctaws, most of whom lived in dirt-floor shacks and depended on
government welfare. "It's just not a good way to live,"
Chief Martin says matter-of-factly.
So Martin went to work. With the help of the Great Society Programs
of the 1960s, the Choctaws built an industrial park and became the
first Indian tribe to compete aggressively for low-skill manufacturing
jobs, and it worked. They went into business with General Motors
to assemble components for trucks and cars. More business followed:
a factory that makes automobile speakers for Ford and Chrysler,
a direct mail business and a construction firm, for-profit nursing
care, a company that makes plastic knives and forks for MacDonald's,
and since 1994 - casinos. Today the 9,000-member tribe is fully
employed; in fact there's enough work for every member to have two
jobs, and the tribe also provides thousands of jobs for non-Indians.
The Golden Moon casino is a long, curved orange edifice - topped
with an enormous glittering sphere that houses a restaurant and
lounge - and looks like a giant golf ball ready to tumble down onto the fountains below. If not beautiful, it is impressive. And
its amenities have brought something new to this once sleepy edge
of east Mississippi.
Jim Prince, publisher of the Nashoba Democrat newspaper, remembers
when the Choctaws were known as an impoverished tribe, plagued by
chronic unemployment and alcoholism. Today they represent the region's
economic engine, with golf courses, water parks, and casinos. "People
here aren't really used to that," says Prince, who recalls
opening day at the Golden Moon with the awe of a small boy catching
his first glimpse of a fire engine. "People still go out and
marvel that this is in the red clay hills of Nashoba County; seems
like you're somewhere else - not here."
A few local residents from the town of Philadelphia complain about
the increased traffic and worry about being swallowed up by the
casino. But for the most part, the non-Indian community embraces
what the Choctaws and the man everybody here knows simply as "Chief"
are doing. They're grateful for the jobs and the economic vitality
it has brought to this county. David Vowell, who heads a local community
development group in town, says Chief Martin has always made an
effort to give back to the off-reservation community. "He's
offered to help with the local park, the local library," according
to Vowell, who adds, "People ask for money and he writes them
Once known for racial division and the murders of civil rights workers
in 1964, Philadelphia Mississippi is now known for its prosperous
tribe that has brought whites, blacks, and Indians together. Town-tribe
relations are clearly better here than in Connecticut. Choctaws
sit on local boards and work closely with town officials and lines
of communication are open. Chief Phillip Martin says another key
difference is that the Choctaws have always been here. "And
we look like Indians," he adds with a mischievous smile in
This is a tribe with a casino, as opposed to a casino that defines
a tribe. In the casino there are no tribal icons or other reminders
that this is an Indian enterprise. The Choctaws say this is their
business, not their culture. And the tribe's John Hendrix says the
casino is just one part of a broad economic strategy that follows
years of success with low wage, low profit enterprises. "It's
important that we had that experience before the casino," says
Hendrix. "When we got the revenue from the casino we knew how
to use it."
|Archival photo from the reservation in the
early 20th century (Photo: Choctaw.org)
The Choctaws don't get cash stipends; they are guaranteed jobs
and college educations. And profits from the gambling is plowed
back into other business ventures as well as tribal housing, schools
and roads. "I look at it this way," says Chief Martin,
"it's how you use the proceeds from the gaming, and I believe
we're using them the right way."
Not everybody across the state is a fan. For example Sam Begley,
who represents Mississippi's non-Indian Gulf coast casinos, says
it' unfair that the Choctaws don't pay state taxes. "We pay
12 percent of gross revenues in taxes, which is a disadvantage,"
he says. Begley says the Choctaws are having it both ways: on the
one hand, he says, they are governmental and sovereign, but on the
other, private and entrepreneurial. "There is a fairness
issue," he says. "All businesses want to be treated the
Begley accepts the idea that Indian tribes deserve a helping hand,
but he argues that with advent of the Civil Rights act, the Fair
Housing act, and the array of government assistance programs, there
ought to be some way to break the back of racial disadvantage that
stops short of giving special privileges and advantages to a particular
group. "I would like to think," says Begley, "that
the Choctaws want to be a part of our country."
For their part, the Choctaws argue they don't pay state taxes
because they don't get state services. The tribe pays for its own
police and fire protection, court system, and roads. And Chief Martin
says there's good reason that federal law protects reservations
from the reach of state tax-collectors. "If there's something
to be gotten from the Indian, [the states] usually get it."
says Martin. "Congress was wise," he adds, "that
the state would want to get its hands into the tribal coffer, and
so it didn't allow that."
New Wealth, Old Customs
The Choctaws are also using their casino wealth to preserve their
native language, which is still widely spoken on the reservation
by tribal elders. The fear of some on the reservations is that as
this tribe becomes further integrated into mainstream American,
the younger generations will lose their linguistic roots. Now, with
the new wealth generated by the casino, Rossana Tubi-Niki has been
able to establish a Choctaw language program. "In the past
I've harped about the need for such a program," says Tubi-Niki,
"but the problem has always been that we didn't have the money."
Now the Choctaws do, so the language instruction begins in the
reservation's Head Start program, where tribal elders like Lula
May Lewis, introduces Choctaw to the tribe's youngest members. Speaking
through an interpreter, Ms. Lewis says she cherishes the language
and is happy to be ensuring that it lives on.
On the day of my visit to the Head Start Center, a small boom-box
in the corner of the room was playing traditional Choctaw dance
songs. When I trained my microphone on it, Lula May Lewis approached
and began to sing along. It turned out that long before she became
a language teacher, she was a tribal singer. It was an interesting
moment: the modern boom-box in harmony with the tribal elder, which
prompted a discussion with Rossana Tubi-Niki and her assistant,
Jesse Ben, about the effect of all this wealth on the tribe; about
using casinos to preserve tribal traditions.
Both of them were pleased about how the wealth has helped the tribe,
but they also had some reservations. "My concern is when do
we slow down?" asked Jesse Ben, who is worried about how progress
can also be the enemy of tradition. Rossana Tubi-Niki agreed; she
said since the casino opened, many tribal members are choosing to
work two jobs. "I can see family values and spiritual values
going down the drain," she says. It was a strange moment in
an otherwise positive conversation about the benefits of tribal
wealth and the preservation of cultural traditions. But as Ms. Tubi-Miki
put it, "too much of anything can go bad."
As problems go, too much affluence is a pretty good one to have.
And it's one that a generation ago no tribe in this country could
even dream about.
Contemporary Indian law is animated by the goal of restorative
justice; that the country owes something to Indian tribes as recompense
for its brutal policies of the past. But what does it owe? Economic
opportunity? Special rights? Casinos? The issue is complicated by
the collision of two powerful forces: the reach of Indian sovereignty
and the explosion of casino gambling across the country. Given the
corrosive power of money and politics, it's not surprising that
the idea of nations within nations has led to confrontation and
cynicism about Indian rights in places like Connecticut. But not
everywhere. The Mississippi Choctaws used their sovereign power,
including their casinos to pull themselves and many of their non-Indian
neighbors out of poverty and out of isolation from each other. Taken
together, these stories might point to a need for review and reform
of federal Indian policy; but they also demonstrate the benefits
of effective Indian leadership in America.