Chief Martin’s model rescued Choctaw nation

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 14, 2010

Chief Phillip Martin led his beloved Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians from dependence to independence, a feat no one thought was possible and, as he liked to point out, was accomplished well before the casino era.

Martin, who died last week at the age of 83, was successful because he reinstituted values shared by Native Americans with our nation’s founders — faith, family and independence.

“He transformed the economy of our tribe, and with it, the fate of our people,” said Miko Beasley Denson, who defeated Martin in 2007 when Martin ran for an eighth term, showing a willingness to serve as leader longer than the 40 years he had already led the Choctaws, most of whom live in Neshoba County.

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Like so many Native American groups, the Choctaws were a proud people, displaced and left out as new arrivals, mostly from Europe, spread across the continent. The tribe was subjugated and “federalized,” dependent on aid programs and benefits. Poverty was extreme. Pride was lost.

Martin brought it back, first through a series of small contracts and business enterprises and later through larger, mainstream plants. Earning a paycheck replaced waiting for a welfare check.

Capping the store have been the Silver Star Resort and Casino and Pearl River Resort, which remain works in progress.

“Chief Phillip Martin was a visionary leader whose remarkable life was marked by devoted and productive service to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “His attention to economic development while preserving the cultural aspects of Native American life in Mississippi will be long remembered; he was a great Mississippian and will be missed.”

The challenge for the Choctaws, now more prosperous, will be to maintain the values Martin not only preached, but lived. He wanted the best for his people — the best health care, the best schools, free university education for Choctaw students — but he knew only earned rewards are cherished. That’s his legacy.