MS - Like many American Indians his age, 28-year-old Tonka Wallace
didn't grow up on a reservation. He doesn't speak the language of
the Mississippi Choctaws, his mother's tribe. And he never once
thought he'd work for the tribe that, to him, was just a distant
connection. But that changed last month, when Wallace moved from
Jackson, Miss., to market the tribe's soon-to-be-opened water park.
He's buying a house for his family of four on the reservation, which
has a population of 8,185. He's also planning to take language classes.
"This place is growing by leaps and bounds," says Wallace,
whose first name means "leader" in Oklahoma Choctaw. "People
want to come here and work."
Driven by desperation and aided by some
politicking and a lot of perseverance, the Mississippi Choctaws
have built themselves up from a tribe with rampant poverty to one
with a diverse economy and an outpouring of jobs. Now, Choctaws
work in factories, hotels, golf courses and high-tech businesses
sprinkled throughout the 30,000-acre reservation that is spread
across 10 counties in east-central Mississippi in non-contiguous
"Most anybody that wants a job can
get a job," says Rayburn Waddell, mayor of Philadelphia, Miss.,
the town closest to the tribe's hub.
And more jobs are on the way. The reservation
is a bustling construction site as the tribe works to become a resort
destination and a player in the high-tech world. The latest addition
is a geo-imaging firm, which uses satellite technology to map an
area's features such as houses, oil wells and topography down to
every minute detail.
"We're shifting gears from low to
high," says Phillip Martin, 76, who has been chief of the tribe
since 1959 and receives much of the credit for the tribe's economic
success. Underscoring Martin's success, a couple years ago the tribe
moved some of its low-pay, repetitive manufacturing work to Mexico
to clear the way for high-tech and higher-paying jobs.
Building an economy
All of that is a far cry from four decades
ago, when approximately three-quarters of the Choctaws on the reservation
were unemployed. Now, the unemployment rate hovers at about 4%,
below the national rate of 5.7%.
"It's one of the great success stories
in Indian country," says Andrew Lee, executive director of
the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.
Lee notes that in terms of economic development,
the Mississippi Choctaws are ahead of most U.S. tribes. The National
Congress of American Indians estimates that nearly half of American
Indians are unemployed and one-third live in poverty.
Current-day Mississippi Choctaws are ancestors
of Choctaws who refused to go on the Trail of Tears in the 1800s,
when the U.S. government coerced Indians to move west and many died
of malnutrition and exhaustion. The Mississippi Choctaws hid in
the swamplands and later became sharecroppers on local farms.
Well into the 1900s, the Choctaws were
heavily impoverished. In 1962, 86% of Choctaw families earned less
than $2,000 a year and only 7% of the tribe, which at that time
had about 3,000 members, finished high school. Almost 90% did not
have plumbing and the tribe's infant mortality rate was one of the
highest in the USA.
Because of a lack of education and discrimination,
it was tough for Choctaws to land any of the few low-paying jobs
available near the reservation. Martin says he couldn't find a job
in the mid-1950s even though he had served in the Air Force for
10 years. He also was told he couldn't attend the local junior college
because of the color of his skin.
"We had to build an economy,"
says Martin, an understated man with a sly grin and quick laugh.
Seeing a trend in manufacturers moving
production to the South to avoid working in heavily unionized Northern
states, the tribe decided to seek out manufacturers to come to work
on the reservation. But finding firms willing to come on board wasn't
easy. "We didn't have much to sell except a lot of labor and
natural resources," Martin says.
The tribe sent thousands of letters to
manufacturers without any bites. Finally, in 1979, Packard Electric,
a division of General Motors, opened a plant on the reservation
to make wiring harnesses for cars.
Tax incentives, including no property
taxes and employee tax credits, helped entice more businesses to
the reservation. American Greetings opened a greeting card plant.
The tribe then built an automotive speaker plant, a direct-mail
operation and a plastic-molding firm. Today, customers of the reservation's
businesses are a Who's Who of Corporate America ExxonMobil,
Caterpillar, Ford Motor, McDonald's and Pepsi, just to name a few.
In addition to seeking ties with industry,
Martin also made political connections. Since taking over as chief,
he has made regular trips to Washington to seek funding and support
for legislative measures. The tribe has a paid lobbyist in the nation's
capital. And since 1999, the Mississippi Choctaws have given $155,000
to national political parties, with the bulk of the money going
Diversified business mix
Knowing manufacturing is subject to swings
in the economy, the Choctaws sought to diversify, and in the 1980s
opened a nursing home and a shopping center, both of which draw
clients and customers from nearby communities.
But the biggest phase of the tribe's development
came in 1994, when it opened the Silver Star Resort & Casino,
which brings in about 3.5 million visitors a year. The Silver Star
alone employs 2,300 people and brought in nearly $238 million in
revenue for the tribe last fiscal year. Under a law passed by Congress
in 1988, tribes are allowed to operate casinos on reservations after
negotiating a pact with the state. Revenue is not subject to state
taxes and is to be used to boost tribal welfare.
The tribe also runs two award-winning
golf courses created by golf course designer Tom Fazio and PGA veteran
Jerry Pate. About 45,000 people play on the courses each year.
Now, the Choctaws are trying to bring
in even more tourists. The tribe is building a second hotel-casino,
the Golden Moon, a flashy, $290 million building that stands in
stark contrast to the surrounding red-clay landscape. It will employ
an additional 2,000 people.
And to further draw tourists, the tribe
is building a $20 million water park that is being designed by a
team of people who used to work for Star Wars director George Lucas
and Disney. The tribe also is filling in a 280-acre lake for boating
and fishing, lining the lake's shores with sand for sunbathing.
Despite its success, the tribe has not
completely dodged controversy. Two years ago, five members of the
tribe were arrested after they tried to shut down the tribal government
by chaining the front door of the administrative offices shut, according
to local newspaper reports. A tribal spokeswoman said the members
were protesting the building of the new casino.
After that event, the tribe hired a former
FBI official to beef up security. He is now Martin's personal security
officer and drives the chief's Lincoln Navigator and travels with
his boss out of state on the tribe's private plane, bought last
year for $4.6 million.
Currently, a lawsuit against the tribe
argues the Choctaws should pay state taxes, something they dispute
because they don't use state services and even run their own fire
and police departments. Under U.S. rules, the tribe pays federal
but not state taxes.
And a group of auto dealers in the state
is trying to block the tribe's attempts to enter the car sales business.
They argue that because the tribe would be operating on sovereign
lands, it would not be subject to the same strict regulations the
dealers must follow, creating an uneven playing field.
"It gives a huge competitive advantage
to them over every other dealer," says Bill Lehman, head of
the Mississippi Automobile Dealers Association. "It almost
amounts to ... reverse discrimination."
And some also are a bit worried that the
tribe's success will put them out of business.
"It frightens people. It frightens
me sometimes," says Steve Wilkerson, owner of Steve's on the
Square, a nearby clothing shop. Wilkerson who stresses that
so far the tribe's success has been to his benefit says he's
worried the tribe will follow through on plans to build an outlet
mall. Martin shrugs off the opposition. "It's part of doing
business," he says.
But any controversy that arises is far
overshadowed by the tribe's success, and it's hard to find a Choctaw
who isn't happy with the tribe's progress.
Every year, each of the 8,823 registered
tribal members, who must be at least one-half Mississippi Choctaw
but are not required to live on the reservation, receives up to
$1,000 from the proceeds of the tribe's operations.
The 2,150 people who work for the tribal
government have 401(k) plans that include a dollar-for-dollar match
up to 8% of pay, and many say the pay is competitive. The tribe's
revenue has also let it build up its social services, including
programs to treat substance abuse and mental health problems and
to provide financial education. The tribe has built schools and
recently opened a top-notch day care center, funded almost entirely
from tribal funds.
The tribe pays for any member to go to
college, no strings attached, even if he or she has never set foot
on the reservation.
"This is really a social worker's
dream in terms of what is available," says Nann Smith, 43,
a Mississippi Choctaw who moved back to the reservation six years
ago and is the director of family and community services.
The Mississippi Choctaws also are supporting
the state economy indirectly as the people they employ and the tourists
who come to the reservation spend money in the state, leading to
new businesses and increased sales, according to a recent Mississippi
State University study. That study found $350 million in economic
activity and more than 6,000 jobs that were not directly related
to the Choctaws were generated in 2000 as a result of the tribe's
But perhaps the biggest benefit from the
tribe's success is it has drawn people back to the reservation and
has recreated a tribal community that was nearly extinct.
"If we separated, everybody going
on their own way, the culture would die," Martin says.
"I never thought that I would come
back and work here," says Gary Ben, 39, who moved back to the
reservation more than 10 years ago. "A lot of us were born
here, a lot of us were raised here, and a lot of us are going to
die here. I hope to stay here a long time."
|Choctaw's financial benefits
State tax revenue
Increased gross state product
|From annual 2001 operations;
Source: Mississippi State University