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The Choctaw Journey: From Rags to (Not Quite) Riches

By Sandra Knispel | Published 17 Feb 2011 01:15pm | comments
Choctaw and Non-Indian employees assemble wire harnesses for tanks and fighter jets at Applied Geo Technologies, a tribally-owned enterprise at the industrial park in Choctaw, near Philadelphia, Miss.

The Choctaw have come a long way from abject poverty to tribal economic independence, but not all that glitters is gold. MPB’s Sandra Knispel continues our series on the journey of the Mississippi Choctaw Indians.

[Nat sound gambling/casino]
If that’s what you think of when you hear Choctaw enterprise you’re not wrong. The tribe’s casinos continue to provide jobs and revenues. They also make it possible to pay all tribal members a $500 distribution every six months. Average annual incomes have risen to about $30,000. But it wasn’t always like this. When the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians reconstituted itself in 1945, more than a hundred years after its forced removal from Mississippi, jobs were scarce, education rudimentary and most tribal members lived well below the poverty line. Dr. Kennith York is the director of the tribe’s development division.

“People were still sharecropping," Dr. York said. "They didn’t have any jobs, they didn’t have a way to make a good living.”

It wasn’t until 1963 that the tribe built its own high school, providing its people for the first time with an education that went beyond eight grade.

“When that happened it provided an opportunity for our people to learn. But at the same time, I believe the government called it 'the Great Leap,' and part of that was economic development. So by 1970 we had an industrial park," York added.

That’s when the idea of self-sufficiency came into play says Gilbert Thompson, the tribe’s director of community development, planning and real estate.

“Our funding that we get from the federal government is totally not adequate," Gilbert explained. "And the only way that the tribe can generate any kind of revenue is through businesses that we create.”

Today, in its industrial park, located on the reservation in Choctaw, near Philadelphia, tribal members and Non-Indians work together to produce military defense robots for mine clearing, and wiring harnesses for tanks and fighter jets.

[Nat sound crimper] What you hear is a pneumatic crimper used in the production process of the wiring harness for the Abrams tank here at Applied Geo Technologies, a tribally owned enterprise. By diversifying its companies, ranging from construction and commercial laundry, to casinos and high tech, the tribe has tried to become financially independent.

“Profits get turned over to the general fund for use by the tribal government,” Thompson said.

In 1994, the first casino – the Silver Star – opened its doors, and in 2000 The Pearl River Resort was added. Today, the tribe is the largest employer in east central Mississippi and by its own account the fifth largest private employer in the state. But not only tribal members profit when Choctaw enterprises do well. Sixty-five percent of the 7,000 jobs at tribal businesses are held by Non-Indians.

“They have a payroll of well over $100 million,” said Dr. Marianne Hill, senior economist at the Institutions of Higher Learning in Jackson.

“In addition because of the multiplier impact on surrounding businesses, we estimate that the amount of revenue generated for the state is well in excess of $10 mio. So, it’s a very important contributor to the state’s economy," she added.

Of course, just like many other businesses across the country the recession has hit hard. Gaming revenues are down substantially with gamblers sitting out a few rounds. Meanwhile the tribe is growing rapidly, 50 percent is under the age of 21. Financial sustainability means being able to keep the tribe’s history and traditions alive.

“In my family we social dance, we sing in Choctaw, and then we speak in Choctaw,” Laettner Johnson said. “And to be honest,” he added with a laugh, “we also eat what Choctaws cook like hominy and fry bread.”

In order to ensure that traditional families like the one of high school student Laettner Johnson won’t become a relic of the past, the needs of the tribe’s 10,000 plus members must be met. Even today, 29 percent of Choctaw live in poverty and rely on the tribe’s social services. To 18-year-old Laettner it’s also a matter of tribal self-respect.

“To be a Choctaw – that means something very powerful. Because we can show that we have pride in one another, for our tribe and our traditional ways.”

Tomorrow we conclude our series on the Mississippi Choctaw’s journey by delving into the mysterious world of the tribe’s medicine man. Sandra Knispel, MPB News.


Choctaw and Non-Indian employees assemble wire harnesses for tanks and fighter jets at Applied Geo Technologies, a tribally-owned enterprise at the industrial park in Choctaw, near Philadelphia, Miss.



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