Mother, Leader: Mississippi Choctaw Has First Female Leader

New Choctaw Chief, Phyliss J. Anderson

Michelle Tirado

Mother, Leader: Mississippi Choctaw Has First Female Leader

The 10,000-plus members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians made it clear this past summer that they wanted a dramatic change in leadership.

Three times Choctaw voters went to the polls—once on June 14, the day scheduled by the tribe to elect a new leader; then on July 5 for a runoff election; and then once more on September 6, after the results of the first election were thrown out (and thus the runoff election’s) because voters in the Pearl River precinct were allowed to cast their ballots after the polls closed.

The result of those many elections: Out went the incumbent, Miko Beasley Denson, who had been in office since 2007, and in came Phyliss J. Anderson.

Events that unfolded as the campaigns and elections played out help explain why the Choctaw voted for a change in leadership. On July 12, the tribe’s Pearl River Resort, home to the Golden Moon and Silver Star casinos, was raided by dozens of FBI agents, who seized documents and computer hard drives. The tribal council appeared to be in the dark in the days after the raid—and the only detail the tribe can confirm today is that it is not the resort that is being investigated. Various media, however, have reported that it is connected to Denson’s dealings with the manager of its casinos, Atlanta-based Mercury Gaming Group and its affiliate, the Titan Agency, specifically pointing to the miko significantly upping the amount of the monthly payments made to Mercury Chief Executive Officer Doug Pattison last February, going from $60,000 to $250,000.

On July 14, Moody’s downgraded $200 million in securities borrowed by the Choctaw Resort Development Enterprise to junk bond status. About a month later, Price Waterhouse Coopers resigned as outside auditor for the tribe’s gaming facilities, a role it fulfilled for about 10 years. Before the third election, Anderson said in a written statement, “We deserve a voice and a transparent government. The time is now to end dirty politics on the reservation and get to work for our tribal people.” But it was also a message she had persistently sent out to voters in her bid for the chief’s seat. Now she is in a position to put these words into action.

Anderson, a wife, mother of three—ages 10, 25 and 26—stepmother of four—ages 12, 18, 21 and 24—and grandmother of four was inaugurated on October 4 as the Choctaw’s first female chief. Fresh off introducing President Barack Obama at the third White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 2 and although extremely busy with the transition, she agreed to talk about her family, why she ran for the office and the changes she plans to make.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The only thing I ever wanted to be was a good person who loved myself as well as others. I never really had any dreams of being one thing—I wanted to be many things. But the main thing that always stuck in my mind, with the help of my mother, was to always treat people with kindness.

Did you ever envision yourself being where you are today?

No. I have always—even in elementary school, junior high and so forth—taken a leadership role, when given the chance. But this position was not anything that I had dreamed of.

Why did you decide to run this time?

It was something I was called to do. Leadership is practiced, and it is earned. After years of service to the Red Water Community, which I served for eight years, and recognizing that our tribe could be greater, I felt a strong sense of duty to the people.

Was there a time during the campaign when you doubted that you would win?

I did not have time to doubt.

How is your family adjusting to your new job?

My older children are adjusting okay. I do not see them as often now, but that is temporary. As for my youngest son, he has a lot of adjusting to do. He is 10 years old.

You decided to not use the title miko**. Why?**

Under our tribal constitution, the chief is referred to as the “tribal chief.” When miko was used for the last four years, people actually thought that was [Beasley Denson’s] name, because they did not know that it came from the Choctaw language as the word for leader. And it has been tradition for many years to be called chief when you are a leader of an Indian tribe. Not only do I want to be called the chief, but I think it is easier for people in the outside world to really relate to that title.

What is your first order of business?

To get our tribe financially stable.

What will be your strategy for bringing unity to the tribe?

Our people need to know what is going on in our government. As long as we maintain open lines of communication, this will promote a sense of unity, because everyone feels like they have a voice. That is what I want my administration to be about.

Down the road, what big changes do you plan to make for the tribe?

We must equip our young people with the skills to pursue their dreams. We want our Choctaw Health Center to dispense the best care possible. We want to preserve our language and our culture. We want to continue to expand. These goals are within our reach, but we must pursue them as one people.

What was your reaction to being invited to introduce President Obama at the Tribal Nations Conference?

After the initial shock of it all, I was quite honored to introduce the president of the United States of America. But, most important, I wanted our people to see this as the historic moment it was. I am one person representing more than 10,000 tribal members. It was never about me, but about our tribe. This opportunity was a huge show of support and respect for my people, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. I am humbled and honored.

What do you believe the conference accomplished?

I think as leaders, it was very beneficial for us to come together in one room to discuss issues and challenges that abound in Indian country. There was really good dialogue and rapport between Indian leaders and federal government officials. These conferences are beneficial because it builds the tribal-federal government-to-government relationships and helps us to clearly communicate our most pressing needs. It is important that we increase access to federal agencies and lessen the barriers of bureaucracy that still exist.

We need to stop living in the now or looking to the past and start true progress for our future. Yes, there have been improvements, and I hope one day we will look at this time as a turning point. But let us not be mistaken, there is still much work to be done. I think these conferences are very important in creating the necessary dialogue that must occur between our governments. But even more beneficial would be visits to our reservation, where government officials can see firsthand the impact of federal legislation, for better or worse.