Choctaw election continues reservation shake up 7-07

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Phyllis John Anderson, Council secretary-treasurer of the Mississippi Choctaw, right, administers the official oath of office to Beasley Denson, on July 10.

AP Photo/Neshoba Democrat, Jim Prince

By JULIE GOODMAN
The Clarion-Ledger
CHOCTAW, Miss. (AP) - They've said that when it's all over, they'll
still be friends.

They've said that when the campaign signs are put away and the
stickers, billboards and fliers are set aside, that when the shouting
is over, friends and family will embrace each other again.

But members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw also know that
this election was capable of distraction. They've seen the way it
divided families, humbled a powerful chief and turned soft-spoken
volunteers into rabid foot soldiers at the front lines of political
combat.

The campaign was brutal.

But it also was empowering, more so perhaps than any Choctaw tribal
election in recent memory.

Jaws dropped around the reservation three weeks ago when news hit
that longtime Chief Phillip Martin's seat was in jeopardy.

The chief, who had built a small empire across east central
Mississippi with casinos, governmental offices and a sprawling social
services network, was hanging on to his office by a thread, as
challenger Beasley Denson pulled ahead by 34 votes in the June 12
general election.

A runoff on July 3 determined who would lead the 9,660-member
Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Denson took the tribal seat by 211 votes, becoming the first new
chief the tribe has seen in decades. The votes were disputed, and
Sunday was the last day to challenge the results. But Martin issued a
written statement saying the campaign is over, offering his
congratulations to Denson and urging tribal members to move on from
the election.

Now, with Martin's words, ``Let us unite as a tribe,'' it remains to
be seen whether divisions on the reservation will fade.

Loyalty to a tribal chief can be fierce. And animosity toward him,
from those who feel they've been wronged, can be even more intense.

``We've seen a lot of things we've never seen in the past. We've
never seen mailers coming to our houses every day, making accusations
against the other candidate,'' said Tribal Council member Eddie Sam,
a Denson supporter.

``At the end of the day, we're all Choctaw people. We're all related
some way or another, and when this election's all said and done,
we're going back to being families, friends and business as usual.''

Regardless of the winner, or who was on whose side, it was the fight
itself and not just its outcome, that mattered.

On Tuesday, two warring factions staked out territory outside the
reservation's busiest polling place, located near tribal headquarters
in the Pearl River community.

``Re-elect Phillip Martin!'' and ``Beasley Denson for chief!'' the
signs screamed.

A group of Denson supporters thrust placards into the air, including
one makeshift sign reading ``Honk-4-Beasley,'' creating a deafening
roar of screaming and furious car horns.

Yards away down the street, Martin supporters waved their signs,
yelling slurs about Denson and drawing their own honking horns.

There were catcalls, rumors and slogans shouted with the ferocity of
football fans. In quieter moments, there was discussion about
housing, hiring, health care and self-improvement.

Tracey Trolle, a Martin supporter who came in from Las Vegas for the
election, said the campaigning instilled a feeling of empowerment
among the tribal members as American Indians.

``I think the people are talking, and that's good because it's
showing me that our people are moving up and they're using their
voice and that's the most important thing,'' said Trolle, 33.

``It's also going to show that, not only this tribe but other tribes,
that people still have the power to control their government.''

But Trolle, whose family is dealing with a bitter split over
candidate differences, said she is returning home and doesn't
necessarily feel welcome on the reservation because of the tension.

``It's just not a happy time, and I don't want my kids to be around
that,'' she said.

Family rivalries can become intense during elections.

``Some won't speak to each other for years,'' said Richard Isaac, a
Denson supporter who is waiting out his final days on the Tribal
Council since his defeat last month. ``I've seen that in past
elections.''

Martin supporter Rebecca Steve, 28, said there was ``childish
behavior'' on both sides. ``Obviously, there are a lot of very high
emotions.''

But everyone had good reasons, she said.

Nancy Clemons, a Denson supporter who had stood among the crowd
outside tribal headquarters - opposite her niece, Trolle, down the
street - said she never thought she'd come so far in the fight.

``This is proof that people can make a difference and that they have
the power to change things,'' said Clemons, 45, an elementary school
cook who complained of a sore throat during Tuesday's campaign
yelling.

``I think that people will learn to stand up for what's right because
usually we don't know how to fight.''

One day, she said, her children and her grandchildren will ask her
what she did, and she wants to be able to tell them she stood up for
herself.

``It has changed here. I'll just keep on fighting, I guess, for
what's right. But if I don't fight for myself, my kids will never
learn to fight for themselves.''

And while it will take time, she is sure that, in the end, divisions
among the Mississippi Choctaws will fade away.

``When this is over,'' she said, ``we'll all be friends.''

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