JACKSON — Phillip Martin, a longtime chief who helped pull the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians out of brutal poverty with two tribal casinos and other businesses, died Thursday night. He was 83.
Martin’s family was by his side when he passed away at 9:03 p.m. at a Jackson hospital, said his niece Natasha Phillips. The former chief suffered a massive stroke while driving on Monday, and Phillips said he died because of complications from the stroke.
During Martin’s 32-year tenure as chief until 2007, the Choctaws opened a $750 million resort with the two casinos, a golf club and a water park on tribal land in rural east central Mississippi, about 65 miles northeast of Jackson. He was praised for vastly improving the economic standing of the tribe and creating a path to college for tribal youth.
“The tribe, through my leadership, set up a scholarship program that pays 100 percent of their college. All they have to do is go,” he said in 2009.
There now are more jobs on the reservation than before he took over. In later years as chief, he faced criticism over not having enough tribal members in upper-level management positions, a yearslong wait for new housing and assertions that tribal schools couldn’t compete with the nearby public school system.
First elected chief in 1979, Martin promoted economic development long before the casinos opened. In 1981, he persuaded his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., to issue bonds to lure American Greetings to what was then a new industrial park on the Pearl River Reservation.
The Choctaws used the bond money for a 12,000-square-foot building, which was used by the greeting card company for 25 years. At its peak, American Greetings employed 150-250 people and had an annual payroll of more than $2 million.
“Most people do not realize that we are a sovereign government,” Martin said in 2005. “The tribe … uses its enterprise revenues as the equivalent of tax dollars to support its schools, police protection, fire protection, courts, road construction and maintenance, hospital and three community clinics, social services and water and sewer services.”
Critics questioned the viability of placing the tribe’s two casinos across the street from one another in Neshoba County — the Silver Moon casino opened in 1994; the Golden Moon opened in 2002.
Martin didn’t see it that way.
“Anytime you go into business, it’s a risk. A lot of people thought that two casinos couldn’t survive. I believe they can,” Martin told The Neshoba Democrat newspaper in 2009 as he promoted his newly published book, “Chief: The Autobiography of Phillip Martin.”
However, the weak economy forced the Golden Moon in January 2009 to eliminate hundreds of nontribal staff positions and cut operations to three days a week to save money.
Martin also led a failed effort to open another casino on land the tribe owned in coastal Jackson County. That would have been the only casino in the county, though there are several along the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi’s two other coastal counties.
Martin spent a decade in the U.S. Air Force, and began a career in tribal leadership in 1957. He was married to Bonnie Kate Bell, a former Indian princess who retired after 52 years with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The couple had recently celebrated their 54th anniversary.
Other survivors include two daughters.