Dean Chavers: Late Mississippi Choctaw chief Phillip Martin broke new ground for Indian Country

Phillip Martin, 1926-2010, served as chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians for 32 years. Photo from National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Dr. Dean Chavers, the director of Catching the Dream, reflects on the economic development gains made by the late Phillip Martin when he served as chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians:
Chief Phillip Martin was born on March 13, 1926 outside Philadelphia. He began early in his adult life to see the value of business, and how important it was for the life of the tribe for his people to be working. He saw that jobs, not government support and welfare, would be the salvation of his people.

He served over 40 years in the leadership of the tribe. He first became chief in 1959. He served on the tribal council for several years before he was elected chief. He had a break as Chief in the 1970s, but once he ran again and won, he never lost.

The Chief spent almost 20 years lobbying the Bureau of Indian Affairs for help in getting jobs for his people—without success. So he finally did it himself. He started an enterprise zone on the reservation, something that few tribes have done even to this day. And he made a huge success of it.

It was a long slog. He contacted over 500 firms before he got the first manufacturer to locate on the reservation. That was in 1978, a 42,000-square-foot plant that assembled wire harnesses for General Motors. The tribe now has 1,000 people assembling wire harnesses for Ford. This plant, managed by an experienced non-Indian, provides the elaborate wiring mechanisms behind the dashboards of GM cars and trucks.

They also have a 60,000-square-foot plant that produces speakers for Ford, Chrysler, and McDonnell-Douglas. It has annual sales of $30 million. Another plant with 175 workers produces cable for Ford and Chrysler, and circuit boards and electronics equipment for AT&T, Xerox, Westinghouse, and Navistar. Ford and Chrysler have granted six quality performance awards to Choctaw plants.

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Dean Chavers: Indian Country Needs More Leaders Like the Late Phillip Martin (Indian Country Today 5/7)

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