When Phillip Martin returned to the Choctaw Indian reservation in
Philadelphia, Miss., from a stint in the U.S. Air Force in 1959, he found
his people suffering from poverty, sickness and depression.
"We had no water. No housing. No schools. No jobs," recalled Martin, who is
serving his sixth consecutive four-year term as the Choctaws'
democratically elected tribal chief. The few tribal members who found work
toiled as sharecroppers.
"There was little hope," Martin recalled.
Martin today can stand atop his tribe's ultramodern, 28-story Golden Moon
Hotel & Casino and gaze across a sprawling, 30,000-acre reservation at new
homes, schools, clinics and factories; a shopping center; a 285-acre,
man-made resort lake and two golf courses; and numerous other businesses.
Every adult member of the 9,100-member tribe who wants a job has one. In
fact, tribal enterprises generate more than 12,000 direct and indirect
jobs, making the Choctaws one of the largest employers in Mississippi.
Glancing over the press coverage surrounding the growth of tribal and
commercial gambling in this country, one would surmise that the only
benefit of legal wagering comes from taxation or, in the case of tribal
government gaming, revenue sharing with state governments facing crippling
Commercial casino operating companies are getting hit with hefty, graduated
tax rates that, in the case of Illinois, rise to 75 percent of gross
revenues. Meanwhile, tribal governments are being targeted by states such
as California, where newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger contends
tribes are not paying their "fair share."
"People seem to think that we print money," Mike Smith, executive director
of the Casino Association of Indiana, told attendees at the Southern Gaming
Summit in Biloxi, Miss.
What seems to escape the press and the public - policymakers and
politicians - is the gambling industry's ability to create jobs, fuel
tourism and economic development and, in the case of American Indians,
build strong tribal governments and generate diversified tribal economies.
"There is more to us than gaming tax revenue," Steve Rittvo, president of
the New Orleans-based Innovation Group, told summit attendees. "The gaming
industry has been a catalyst for economic redevelopment. It's an employee
intensive industry. We hire people and get them off the welfare roles.
"This is very significant in Native American gaming," Rittvo said, a
largely rural industry that has generated 500,000 jobs, many on
economically deprived reservations and remote areas plagued by decades of
chronic unemployment. Each 1,000 gaming positions generate about 600 jobs,
he said, and 600 casino jobs can generate 480 spin-off jobs in the local
Every $100 million in gaming revenue generates $15 million in goods and
services, Rittvo said, about 85 percent of which goes to local vendors. The
tribal and commercial gambling industries strive to involve local
merchants, including minority businesses, in their operations.
"We are probably one of the pillars of enhancing the participation of
minorities in the business community," Rittvo said.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
"The positive impacts of the implementation of gaming must be presented in
a comprehensive manner to broaden the base of support" for tribal
government and commercial gaming, Rittvo said.
"I think Native Americans are doing a much better job getting the message
out," Rittvo said, noting the impact of public relations campaigns by the
National Indian Gaming Association and California Nations Indian Gaming
A recently completed research report by NIGA shows how tribal government
gaming has fueled economic relief not only on tribal lands, but also in
surrounding communities. Non-Indians hold about 75 percent of the 500,000
jobs generated by tribal gaming, the NIGA study shows. The industry has
created more than $76 million in taxes and revenues for state and local
The notion that tribes are not paying their "fair share" is totally without
merit. In many states and communities, tribal government gaming is the only
significant source of economic development.
California is a perfect example. Tribal employment in the Golden State,
which now stands at 43,000 workers, is growing at a yearly rate of more
than 17 percent, far more than any other major public or private sector
Instead of seeking an onerous share of tribal revenues, as some in
California and other states would suggest, it stands to reason that
Schwarzenegger and other governors should keep the revenue share at a low
level to encourage investment, further job growth and economic development
on tribal lands.
And, as Rittvo said, it's important that tribes and tribal gaming
associations and the commercial gaming industry get the message out that
the growth of gaming is, indeed, a positive development that benefits all
of us, Indians and non-Indians alike.
Chief Martin of the Mississippi Choctaws has by example carried the message
of tribal sovereignty and economic development.
Tribal operations have proven to be a great benefit to the nearby community
of Philadelphia, Neshoba County and the state of Mississippi, which
recognizes the Choctaws as one of its largest employers. Non-Indians fill
more than 60 percent of the jobs.
"Our state-tribal relations are guided by the spirit of cooperation and
mutual respect," said Martin. "Not confrontation."
Dave Palermo is a freelance writer and president of Native First
Communications, a gaming media consulting firm. He can be reached at