CHOCTAW — A hundred years ago the Mississippi Band of Choctaws Indians (MBCI) was described as the poorest pocket of poverty in the poorest state in the country. In the 1960s, unemployment averaged 80%. In a turnabout that is one of the greatest Native American economic success stories in the country, the Choctaws first entered manufacturing and then tourism/ gaming to achieve not only self sufficiency but provide jobs for many non-Indians.
Currently the Choctaws are one of the top 10 employers in Mississippi with a workforce of about 8,000 in manufacturing, service, retail and tourism. Two-thirds of the workforce is non Indian.
While tourism and gaming are still growing elements of the Choctaw empire, many of the manufacturing jobs brought in during the 1980s were low-wage jobs that have been lost due to NAFTA. The Choctaws are now focusing on a “third wave” of economic development, attracting higher paying technology jobs that won’t be easily exported.
Revenues primarily from gaming have allowed the tribe to offer full college scholarships to its youth, and currently 452 young Choctaws are in school at colleges and universities across the country. The move towards developing high tech jobs will give those students a reason to come home after completing their education.
“The State of Mississippi could actually take a lesson from Chief Phillip Martin and what he is trying to do,” said Matt Thornton, vice president of innovation and resource development, Mississippi Technology Alliance (MTA). “If you look at what the Choctaws have done in the past 50 years, they have been on the cutting edge when it comes to Indian nations across the country creating opportunities for themselves.”
That success has allowed the tribe to invest in educating its youth. But those young people aren’t likely to come back to Philadelphia unless good jobs are available. That’s why the Choctaws are currently working with the MTA and high-tech companies inside and outside of Mississippi to create business opportunities that will create jobs in the knowledge economy.
“Chief Martin knows he has to move into different sectors that correlate with the knowledge economy,” Thornton said. “You have to create knowledge worker jobs as opposed to just jobs. Some sectors that afford that are high technology, communications, pharmaceuticals, life sciences and a more diversified group of companies within the manufacturing sector. He is taking a look at the young intellectual capital out there, and creating opportunities for them. If you look at the State of Mississippi, we have the same issues facing us.”
Thornton said the state needs to take advantage of the strengths it has to leverage more opportunities for high-tech jobs in the state. While most Mississippians have an innate desire to remain in the state near their family, there must be an innovative business climate or the state will lose many of its best and brightest young people.
“Chief Martin understands if he doesn’t create innovative, intellectually challenging job opportunities for his younger members, then the society will dwindle away,” Thornton said. “The Choctaws are actively engaged in looking at partnerships, and that is the role the technology alliance has been playing with them. I think we in the business community need to view the Choctaw Indians as a huge asset for the State of Mississippi.”
John Hendrix, assistant director of economic development, MBCI, said the significance of having 452 Choctaw students especially becomes apparent when you look at the tribe’s history. Ten years ago there hadn’t been 100 college graduates in the history of the tribe.
“That has huge implications for the future,” Hendrix said. “ In order for them to come back and have meaningful jobs, we have to have them available. My job is to have opportunities for them when they come back.”
Earlier this year the MBCI worked with the MTA to put on the Choctaw Technology Forum, which will be an annual event. The forum attracted 200 attendees from different states representing high tech companies such as computer and pharmaceutical firms, and venture capitalists.
The idea of the forum was to showcase the opportunities and advantages of doing business with the Choctaws. While previously representatives of the Choctaws have traveled all across the country to seek business opportunities, this was a major effort to identify local opportunities possible by linking up with other businesses in the state and region.
Hendrix said the forum was “a fishing expedition” that resulted in a lot of opportunities. It took two months to go through the partnership proposals that resulted. Proposals ranged from high-tech manufacturing to information technology projects. Hendrix said currently several joint projects are in the works with announcements expected soon.
One thing he believes would help the Choctaws’ joint venture opportunities, and development of knowledge economy jobs in general in the state, is if Mississippi had more venture capital available.
Creda Stewart, director of public information for the MBCI, said the Choctaw Technology Forum held in April was designed to promote business partnering within the state.
“We collaborated with the MTA and put together those factions in Mississippi business who are looking for relationships,” Stewart said. “We showcased every enterprise and opportunity that the tribe is involved in with our own expo. We invited investment bankers, venture capitalists, business people and educators because it is important to tie the academic world to this. We hosted a reception where each of our CEOs stood up and talked about what we do, and how to do business in Indian country. More business happened and more opportunities were generated in Mississippi, I would guess, than all the out of state conferences we go to. We are there making these alliances happen. It affects not just the tribe, but all of Mississippi because we are hoping to have a healthy economy.”
For more information on doing business with the Choctaws, please contact the office of economic development at (601) 650-1605 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.