Analysis: Miss. Choctaws’ political scene changing

By Jack Elliott Jr.
Jackson, Mississippi (AP)

 Phillip Martin

For 28 years, Phillip Martin was the very public face of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, as comfortable in the halls of Congress as he was at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson.

Martin went anywhere and everywhere to talk up the Choctaws. By the time 2007 came along, some members of the tribe felt Martin was gone too much. Critics questioned everything from the opening of a second casino near Philadelphia, the Golden Moon, to Martin’s ties to Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist now imprisoned in a federal corruption case involving his service to the Choctaws and other tribes.

 Beasley Denson
In stepped Beasley Denson, who defeated Martin in 2007 and adopted the Choctaw title “miko” instead of chief. Denson walked right into economic turmoil that let to layoffs of employees amid declining revenues, mostly at the casinos.

“The recession is what really hit the Choctaws hard,” said Jim Prince, the editor of the weekly Neshoba Democrat and a longtime civic leader. “To his credit, Beasley was able to get the tribe’s fiscal house in order. He shut down the Golden Moon for a few days a week. He did a lot of things that were right.

“Still, among Choctaw Tribe members there was a perception that some outside people were running things,” Prince said. “While Beasley said `Choctaws First,’ the perception was that non-Choctaws were benefiting from the tribe.”

That perception and other things created division in the tribe. Amid the layoffs, tribal members feared for their jobs.

Now, it’s possible the tribe will get a new chief.

 Phyllis Anderson
Backed by supporters of Martin and young tribe members who felt left out, Phyllis Anderson handily defeated Denson in an election this past week. Days later, the Tribal Council ordered a do-over, citing some possible irregularities in voting.

And, even if the election is redone, Anderson has made an impact and gained influence.

“She is well respected. She’s an experienced Tribal Council member and has knowledge of the inner workings of tribal business,” Prince said. “I think that is the strength she brings to the table.”

Anderson says she is up to any task that awaits her.

“I never believed this election was about gender,” Anderson, 50, said after the election. “I always thought it was about unity and leadership. It is proof today that gender did not matter. We had a campaign of volunteers. It was hard work and we were determined.”

She said her main goal is tribal unity, which she believes was ripped apart during Denson’s four years.

“My administration will provide leadership, but also compassion that has been lacking in our current administration,” Anderson said. “I believe that knowing that we will have an open and transparent government (the Choctaw people) can come to us and their voices will be heard.”

Anderson said she hopes to bring government transparency that hasn’t been there in the past so Choctaws can know how the tribe’s money is spent. She described Martin, who died in 2010, as a mentor.

“He put faith in me to run programs,” she said. “He showed me leadership and guidance.”

Anderson said she plans to look at how the Choctaw businesses are run, including the casinos. She said any changes in management anywhere will be made by the Tribal boards that oversee them.

“I have no plans to close anything that is making us money. We do need revenue in the tribe,” she said.

Anderson said members of the tribe deserve to know how their businesses are being run and what their government is doing. She said tribal members have questions:  “They do want to be a part of major decisions, of major undertakings by their government.”