In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Tribal Chief Phyliss J. Anderson, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Phyliss J. Anderson, tribal chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Where is your tribe located?
The majority of the tribe is located in Mississippi, with a small community in Henning, Tennessee. There are eight official communities—Bogue Chitto, Bogue Homa, Conehatta, Crystal Ridge, Pearl River, Red Water, Standing Pine, and Tucker—located in 10 counties in central Mississippi. Tribal headquarters is located in the Pearl River community.
Where was your tribe originally from?
For centuries the Choctaw have lived in the Southeastern United States, largely in what is now the state of Mississippi.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
Our tribe has evolved over the centuries to become a progressive and diverse people. The Choctaw people have overcome seemingly impossible obstacles because our ancestors believed that one day we would not only survive, but thrive. From the time of removal from our lands and battles with disease to our fight for sovereignty and self-determination, we have shown that Choctaws are a resilient people.
The Choctaw journey—that of economic progress and knocking down barriers—is still young. We have many more achievements in our future. I share in the spirit of optimism inherited from our ancestors. Our story is just beginning, and I look forward to what the future holds for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
How is your tribal government set up?
Our government is democratic, with three official branches—executive, legislative, and judicial. The tribal chief is the head of the executive branch and the chief principal officer. A 17-member Tribal Council makes up the legislative branch. Council members are elected from each of the Choctaw communities. The judicial branch is made up of the Choctaw Supreme Court and Choctaw Tribal Courts.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Not in an official capacity. As with most Native cultures, we view our elders with high esteem and respect. From time to time I may seek advice from our elders. They are our true historians and keepers of our cultural heritage, and I believe it is important to learn as much as we can from them.
Chief Anderson speaking with elders at the Choctaw community Thanksgiving feast, November 2011. Photo by Vince O. Nickey (Choctaw).
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The tribal chief is elected every four years. This year happened to be an election year for the tribal chief position. Tribal Council representatives are elected to staggered four-year terms—eight positions during tribal chief elections and nine seats two years later during midterm elections.
How often does your Tribal Council meet?
Regularly scheduled Tribal Council meetings occur every quarter in January, April, July, and October per the Tribal Constitution. However, special-call Tribal Council meetings can be scheduled at any time by the tribal chief.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I was born on New Year’s Day in 1961 and grew up during a time of racial turmoil in the South. My community and family bonded together during those years to become a strong unit, and that’s what I have tried to share with the Choctaw people. There is so much strength in unity and love.
My path to leadership certainly had some challenges, but I learned to face adversity with positivity and determination. I come from a rural area and a poverty-stricken home. My six sisters and I were raised in a tribal frame home located in the Red Water community in Leake County, Mississippi.
My mother was a strong woman and instilled so many important values into us girls. We knew the importance of education, faith, integrity, right, and wrong. But she also demonstrated the value of hard work, determination, dedication, and perseverance. I can remember my sisters and I would work in the cotton fields with Mom. I even remember saving up all of my money to buy five-cent Coke bottles and refashioning them into Barbie dolls.
At the time I did not fully realize I was poor, but looking back now, I can see it. To some people, my family experienced a less-than-desirable environment; however, we were surrounded by encouragement, trust, honesty, support, and a belief that we could accomplish any goals that we set for ourselves. These are the traits that were instilled in me by my mother.
Now as a mother and grandmother myself and as the tribal chief of our great tribe, I have used these same traits to raise a family and provide solid leadership for our Choctaw people.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As the chief principal officer of the tribe, I am responsible for the well-being of the Choctaw people.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Many people have inspired me throughout my life and career. There have been many elders that I have had an opportunity to learn from. One of those is my mother, as I mentioned before. Another is our late Choctaw Tribal Chief Phillip Martin.
I started my career as a receptionist and payroll clerk at Choctaw Development Enterprise. Chief Martin recruited me to work for him, but the director of Choctaw Development at the time did not want to lose me, so he offered to pay me more than Chief Martin was offering. In the end, Chief Martin won after he told my boss, “I’m the chief, and she’s coming with me!” I served as an executive assistant to Chief Martin where I worked my way through our tribal government programs and eventually landed a position as the director of Natural Resources. Early on I believe Chief Martin saw my qualities as a hard worker and leader, and for that I am grateful.
In 2003 I decided to run for elected office as a council representative from my community of Red Water. I was elected and served eight successful years on the Tribal Council, including four years as Secretary–Treasurer. Those eight years were extremely tough for my family and me. However, Chief Martin mentored and encouraged me to lead with grace, poise, and determination.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has an enrollment of just over 10,800 members.
What are the criteria to become a member?
Our Tribal Constitution calls for a 50 percent or more blood quantum to become an enrolled member.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands?
The Choctaw language is still spoken across our communities. Our language is an important part of our identification of who we are as Choctaw people. The Department of Chahta Immi Language Program does a fantastic job of maintaining our traditional language through written documents and traditional songs. This program also offers Choctaw immersion classes for adults and students in our Choctaw Tribal Schools and culturally centered activities throughout the year.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
Mississippi Choctaws have pursued various economic development opportunities on our reservation for over 45 years. In 1969 we started a construction company to build houses on the reservation. In the 1970s and '80s, we opened four manufacturing companies that employ more than 2,000 residents in our community. In the 1990s, we expanded into gaming and tourism with the development of casinos, hotels, and golf courses. Our tourism efforts have created more than 3,500 jobs for our community. In the early 2000s we expanded into more high-tech business ventures that require higher skills, but also pay higher wages for our tribal members.
Today, the Mississippi Choctaws operate a diversified portfolio of businesses that provide direct employment for approximately 4,000 workers.
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
Throughout the year the tribe holds many events for our tribal members. We have Community Field Days in each community. I host a reservation-wide Thanksgiving feast and one in the Henning, Tennessee, community. We also celebrate the holidays with a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. These are all events that are mainly for our tribal members.
We do host a few events open to the public. Our main event, of course, is the annual Choctaw Indian Fair, now in its 66th year. The fair is held every year the second Wednesday through Saturday in July. This is where our Choctaw people showcase the pride we have in our culture. A month after the Choctaw Indian Fair—Friday, August 14, this year, beginning at 10 a.m.—we commemorate and honor the day our Mother Mound was returned to us with the Nanih Waiya Day celebration. The day includes a morning wreath-laying ceremony at the Nanih Waiya Mound near the Kemper–Neshoba county border and All-Star stickball games in the evening.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Visitors to our reservation are encouraged to learn about our Choctaw people by visiting the Chahta Immi Cultural Center (CICC) or taking a pre-scheduled tour of our reservation lands, including the Nanih Waiya Mound, Lake Pushmataha, and the Choctaw Veterans Memorial. A popular tourist destination is our Pearl River Resort, with the Silver Star and Golden Moon casino–hotels, Dancing Rabbit Inn, Dancing Rabbit Golf Club, Geyser Falls Water Theme Park, and Bok Homa Casino.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We have a very good relationship with leaders on the federal government level. I have met with the president on a couple of occasions. I have made frequent travels to the U.S. Capitol to discuss a range of issues with our congressional delegation. Members of the delegation, in turn, have visited the reservation several times in the past few years and have been very supportive of our efforts. It’s important that we, as leaders, build and nurture strong government-to-government relationships that are mutually beneficial.
President Barack Obama and Chief Anderson during the 2011 White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. Gannett/Stephen J. Boitano photo.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
Hard work, dedication, determination, and faith are the keys to success. Failures and mistakes can and will happen. But take those experiences as life lessons and move forward. Never let negativity or adversity keep you from reaching for the stars. Remember, we are all travelers on this journey called life. Keep in mind where you’ve come from and keep looking ahead to see where you are going. Always have appreciation for those who have supported you and always give God the glory.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’m grateful for this opportunity to lead my people as tribal chief. I am able to use this position to put forth many ideas and plans that I believe have and will greatly benefit the tribe and improve the quality of life on the reservation. None of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement from my fellow tribal members. To them, I offer my sincerest appreciation, and I pledge to keep doing my very best to ensure a better future for our people.
All photos courtesy of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians; used with permission.