Native American Business Success Helps Strengthen America
By David Lee Smith, Ph.D
Probably without realizing it, at some point you’ve likely been an indirect customer of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. You see, the tribe is a prime example of business benefiting America. From near destitution as recently as the 1970s, the Choctaws now operate a slew of companies that have benefited their people mightily and made the tribe a major employer in the state of Mississippi.
They Stayed Behind
The Mississippi Band consists largely of descendants of the 5,000 or so members of the Choctaw tribe who rejected relocation to what is now Oklahoma during the Indian removal of the 1830s. Those who chose to stayed behind were required to disavow their membership in the tribe and to become citizens of Mississippi and the United States.
But that major change did not benefit the new Mississippians in the slightest. In fact, it’s been reported that in 1849 one Choctaw stated the nature of their circumstances: “We have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.” Difficult conditions were perpetuated for more than a century. By the end of the 1800s, tribal numbers had been reduced to 1,253 people. And, more recently, the 1960s and early ‘70s saw unemployment among tribal members reach a staggering 80%.
The Leadership of Phillip Martin
Obviously, what was needed were jobs, and that required leadership to render the Mississippi Band a professional and dependable business partner. For the latter, the tribe was fortunate to have in its ranks one Phillip Martin. Martin had served in the U.S. Army during World War II. At the war’s end, he returned to his former Mississippi home and began serving the band in a number of capacities. In 1969, as tribal chairman, Martin led the first steps in what has since become the Choctaw’s remarkable and rapid journey out of poverty. The first step involved the formation of Chahta Development, a tribal-owned construction company that began by building houses for tribal members.
In a subsequent interview, however, Martin, who in 1977 began a 30-year stint as tribal chief, stated that, “We had to build an economy, and we didn’t have much to sell except a lot of labor and natural resources.” Fortunately, the 1970s saw the movement of a number of corporations from North to South, as they sought to avoid expanding unionization. With that as a backdrop, the tribe contacted hundreds of potential manufacturers. The first to respond was Packard Electric, a unit of General Motors, which in 1979 opened a plant on the reservation to make wiring harnesses for cars.
A Growing List of Partnerships
Subsequent participants in the tribe’s vast business expansion have included American Greetings, Club Car, Inc., Caterpillar, and Ford Power Products. And today, if you grab a package of plastic cutlery on your next stop at a McDonald’s, you’re indirectly doing business with the Mississippi Choctaws, who manufacture that product for the huge fast food purveyor.
Like many other tribes recognized by the U.S. Government, the Choctaws have also benefited from the 1988 passage of the National Indian Gaming Act, which permits those specified tribes to operate casinos on their reservations. In 1994 the Choctaws opened the Silver Star Resort and Casino. From there they added golf courses, water parks, and destination resorts. They further introduced expanded social and healthcare services, post-secondary schools and more for their people.
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Far be it for us to recommend gaming. But the U.S. government-backed program has nevertheless added millions in revenue to state and tribal coffers. And from a larger perspective, as Mississippi Band tribal archivist Deborah Boykin has stated, “If 19th century Choctaws could visit their homeland in the 21st century, they would be both amazed and proud – amazed at the diverse tribal economy, high employment, and burgeoning tribal infrastructure and proud of the determination and effort that made these changes possible.”
The thriving Mississippi Choctaws: a stellar demonstration of American Values @ Work.
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