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Phyliss Anderson Becomes First Woman to Lead Mississippi Band of Choctaw

By Sandra Knispel | Published 06 Sep 2011 10:59pm | comments
Newly-elected Choctaw chief Phyliss J. Anderson talks to MPB's Sandra Knispel prior to the election.

Phylliss J. Anderson will be the first female chief to head up the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, having beaten incumbent Beasley Denson. MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports.

No question, Phyliss Anderson’s victory is historic. But she’s by no means the first woman ever to lead an Indian tribe. 

“There are many, many famous examples of principal chiefs of contemporary nations. First, I’m thinking of Wilma Mankiller who was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation who was elected in 1985,” says Annette Trefzer, an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi, who studies cultures and literatures of Native Americans. 

“Especially for southeastern tribal organizations that is not a first. In fact, Phyliss Anderson will join a line of very powerful and influential women chiefs of nations.”

It’s been a bruising battle to get there, with three elections in just three months. But the 50-year old won’t have much time to celebrate. Pressing matters need to be dealt with. For starters there’s the FBI raid on the tribe’s Philadelphia casino in July, which is an ongoing investigation with subpoenas served to her predecessor.

“I’m not sure what is going on. The FBI did come in.  I found out about it because I was receiving tons of calls in the morning. People asking me: “Is it true that they are here?” I started checking around. And the only information that I did get there was about 40 FBI agents at our casino. I’m not sure what they’re looking for. From what I have heard it has ties with Mercury Gaming, the Atlanta-based agencies, and Titan agency," Anderson says.

Next, Moody's Investors Service downgraded $200 million in securities borrowed by the Choctaw Resort Development Enterprise to junk bond status. Then, like dominoes falling, Price Waterhouse Coopers stepped down as outside auditor for the Choctaw casinos.

“When I talk about the financial mess I’m talking about how this started," Anderson explains. "You know, we had over $65 million in cash at the resort level. Today we have about $30 [million] on an average.” 

The new chief fears her tribe’s financial situation is dire.

 “And although I realize that we have paid down some debt [it’s] not at the level that has been reported. Because we still have a lot of debt.” 

Of course, at a time when many Mississippi Choctaw still barely live above poverty level, and some services and programs have already been cut back, the salaries of the tribe’s decision-makers have raised more than a few eyebrows. Understandably so, when you consider that the Mississippi governor makes $122,000 dollars annually – compared with the Miko’s salary of $466,000 – nearly four times more. Anderson concedes it’s time to tighten the belt. 

“Well, apparently with our revenues being down as it is, I know that there are going to be some cuts. I can’t specifically say how much the cuts will be but we are looking into cutting salaries, because I don’t want to cut programs. That’s one thing I don’t want to do. And if there are salaries that has [sic] to be cut then that’s something that I’m going to have to work on with the Tribal Council to make sure that we can make those cuts.”

The cuts would not just affect Anderson's salary. 

“Everyone is going to have to take a look at what the salary basis are, and not just the chief’s position but also all the other positions that makes [sic] very high income.”

Anderson’s career trajectory has been steep. The chief, like many other Choctaw, grew up poor, raised by a single mom.

“I lived in a two-bedroom frame house and there was seven girls. We had no running water in the house. We had no electricity. There were times when we did not have much to eat.”

The married mother of three biological and four stepchildren, and now a grandmother, has been a public servant to the Choctaw tribe for more than a quarter century. She’s held many positions, including treasurer and tribal council member. Now she needs to start healing the rift that the bruising battle for leadership has caused among tribal members.

“What you say to them has to be the truth, good or bad," Anderson says. "If we tell them the state of the tribe that they know what’s happening within our tribe [then] it will be more easy for them to accept what is going on. Trust and transparency are the one, two things that’s gonna bring a unified group.” 

One thing is certain, Miko Anderson will need more than budget cutting skills and integrity to get the Choctaw finances back on solid footing. Without that, the distinct Choctaw way of life and its rich culture will become much harder to protect.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News.





Newly-elected Choctaw chief Phyliss J. Anderson talks to MPB's Sandra Knispel prior to the election.



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