By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press
JACKSON – Phillip Martin, a longtime chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, was remembered Friday as a visionary who lifted the tribe from stifling poverty with casinos and other businesses.
Martin died Thursday night at a Jackson hospital with his family by his side after suffering a massive stroke a few days earlier, said his niece, Natasha Phillips. He was 83.
Martin’s 28-year tenure saw the construction of an industrial park and the $750 million Pearl River Resort, complete with two bustling 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 improving the economic standing of the tribe with more than a dozen enterprises that created thousands of jobs. He also created 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.
Martin spent 45 years in Tribal government.
“He was a great man and a visionary leader … He transformed the economy of our Tribe and with it the fate of our people,” said Miko Beasley Denson, the current chief who defeated Martin in 2007. “Our Tribe and all of Indian Country would not be where we are today without his leadership, commitment to self-determination and his dedication to economic development.”
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 an industrial park on the Pearl River Reservation. American Greetings employed 150-250 people at its peak with an annual payroll of more than $2 million.
Martin’s influence reached beyond Mississippi. He was the first president of the Board of Regents of Haskell Indian Junior College, now Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence Kan. He also served as president of the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association and president of United South and Eastern Tribes Inc.
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, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Martin’s funeral was set for Monday at 11 a.m. at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in the Tucker community of Neshoba County.