Phyliss Anderson grew up without running water or electricity. Money, like everything else, was scarce. But she knew some of her friends would get new dresses for the Red Water School Christmas program and she wanted one too.
She was the baby of seven girls born to a single-parent mother in a single income home. She knew her mother was doing her best, but a new dress for each occasion just wasn’t possible.
Then her mother handed her a neatly wrapped Christmas package. She looked up with dark, hopeful eyes.
“Open it,” her mother said.
Her small fingers untied the string and peeled back the paper. Inside was a plaid dress in red, blue and green.
“There’s one catch, though,” her mother said. “You have to rewrap it after your program so that you’ll have something to open on Christmas morning.”
Anderson, now chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, tells this story, one of her favorites, over lunch with her staff and guests around a polished table in her tribal office boardroom. From here, she commands a multi-million-dollar business empire, making the tribe one of Mississippi’s largest private employers.
Anderson defeated former Chief Beasley Denson in 2011 to become the first female chief. Last fall, she won re-election. She has brought her people a new, state-of-the-art, tribally-run health center, improved schools that drew glowing praise from U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and even established a relationship with the President of the United States.
She couldn’t sit still. She’d spoken to crowds of thousands and braved the public eye on a daily basis, but this was different.
“I was a nervous wreck,” Anderson said.
She was preparing to introduce President Barack Obama at the 2011 White House Tribal Nations Conference. She’d only been in office two whole months, and the White House had chosen her.
“It’s not every day that you do something like that,” Anderson said. “Everyone was very pleasant and good to me, but I still had butterflies in my belly. It was a nerve-racking thing for me, because I didn’t want to miss anything.”
Not only was the president listening, but her whole tribe was tuned in back in Mississippi.
“When the chief was introducing the president, we had it broadcast down here for our kids to see,” said Rae Vaughn, Anderson’s chief of staff. “It caused (our internet) to crash because everybody wanted to see it. They saw some of it, and then it went out. Yeah, it was amazing. It was almost like a day of celebration. We were seeing our chief introduce the President of the United States.”
Vaughn, former chief justice of the Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court, was so proud of the chief at that moment she could barely restrain herself. But the chief herself won’t take credit.
“It was a wonderful experience and something I’m very proud of,” Anderson said. “Even to that, I give the honor to the Choctaw people. It was like I wasn’t just there representing myself or being the chief — I was representing the whole tribe. That’s why everybody was glued on.”
But there is one moment Vaughn will never forget about that day.
“The really cool thing after that introduction,” she said, “as the president was coming to the podium, he said, ‘Thank you, Phyliss.’ Like he’d known her for a lifetime.”
Today she sits behind a large wooden desk in the Office of the Tribal Chief. But half a century ago, the chief was a small girl wearing hand-me-downs in a drafty house.
“The only heat that we had in our home was a fireplace and of course the wood stove,” Anderson said. “I was born on New Year’s Day, 1961. We lived in a two-bedroom house. It’s called a tribal frame house. I grew up pretty much working in the fields.”
It was a tough way to grow up. And a tough time. Her Choctaw community of Red Water was located in the heart of the Jim Crow South. Anderson grew up there, in Leake County, just west of Neshoba, where the Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964. Blacks were treated as second-class citizens. So were Choctaws.
“It was a difficult time,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s mother had felt the sting of discrimination firsthand. She taught her daughters that it was wrong.
“That’s something that Mom always talked about, was that we went through such a difficult time because there was a lot of racism back in that era,” Anderson said. “She taught me that regardless of what was out there and what people would say, that we were all children of God. She said no one person is better than the other.”
That lesson pushed Anderson all the way to her post at tribal headquarters.
She began working for the tribe under the late Chief Phillip Martin, a visionary tribal leader first elected in 1979 and credited with leading a tribal renaissance. Under Martin’s leadership and policy of self-determination, the tribe emerged as a leader in advanced manufacturing, technology and economic development. Anderson had known Martin since she was a child, and he became her mentor.
After Anderson was elected to the tribal council in 2003, he encouraged her to seek the tribe’s secretary-treasurer position. He thought her experience serving as a program director and her knowledge and understanding of tribal budgets would serve the tribe well.
She eventually ran for the position and won, serving four years as secretary-treasurer.
In 2007, though, things changed. Martin, who had served for 28 years, was defeated by Beasley Denson in the race for chief.
“We changed in leadership at that time,” Anderson said. “There were two very different styles of governance. That was a very difficult time with major adjustments and transitions for the Choctaw people and employees. Basically, being in the tribal council before I came into chief, I saw a lot of finances of the tribe. I knew we were hurting financially. I was very concerned about the tribal employees. I felt that a lot of them were being harassed and intimidated, being picked on. I didn’t want that.”
She felt a divine calling to provide new leadership for her people. At this critical time, in the midst of financial turmoil spawned by America’s Great Recession, she considered running for chief.
“It took a lot of talks with my pastor, a lot of pros and cons,” Anderson said. “I felt like it was a calling, just as my pastor did. He says, ‘This is something that’s going to have to happen.’ It was a lot of prayer, a lot of discussion, even with my family members. I didn’t ever decide to be chief or on the council, but only to follow the Lord’s plan for my life. I think I’ve been blessed with it.”
But the journey has been challenging at times. Two days after she won the 2011 election, the Tribal Council overturned it with Denson casting the tie-breaking vote, Anderson had received just over 300 votes more than Denson.
Anderson, who had run a campaign calling for transparency and healing, was disappointed. However, a second vote resulted in another victory: the Choctaws had their first female chief.
“When I first won back in 2011, people talked about ‘We made history. That’s the first woman chief in the Choctaw history.’ Of course, I’m very proud of that,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t that I wanted to be the first of something when I ran for that office. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to provide leadership, but I wanted to provide leadership with compassion as well as understanding.”
So far, that attitude has served her well. According to Anderson, leading the tribe and putting it on firmer financial footing was daunting, but it was her job nevertheless.
“I signed up for it, so it didn’t matter what the sins of the past were,” she said. “It was on my plate now. It was something I had to take care of.”
And that she did.
During the recession, gambling traffic declined and in 2009 the tribe shut down the Golden Moon casino except on weekends, laying off a large part of its work force. In July 2011, Moody’s downgraded the tribe’s bond rating from B3 to Caa2, basically junk bond status. Anderson realized she needed to restructure the tribe’s debt, tighten financial management, and set a course to right the ship. She did all of that, including getting the bond rating restored to B3 by July 2014.
During her first year as chief, cash on hand increased by 41 percent and profit increased by 22 percent. When she took office in October 2011, the Pearl River Resort, which includes the Golden Moon and Silver Star casinos, was paying about 8 percent interest on a bank loan and 7.25 percent on bond debt. In April 2016, the tribe obtained approval for a bank loan that will consolidate the existing loan and bond debt at about 2 percent interest, a major cost savings. And the Golden Moon has resumed daily operations.
“We had to bring back financial stability,” Anderson said. “We’ve done that. We’re still growing. We still have so much more to do, but we’re in a lot better shape than what I found.”
For that, Anderson is well known among her people. But it’s something else about the chief that draws them to her.
“When she goes out to the schools, she’s very approachable,” Vaughn said. “She’s not some figure-head. The kids love running up to her and hugging on her. The Choctaw people have a lot of pride in her; she is the first female chief.”
And Anderson is just as proud of them.
“I guess that when I look back, the people made history,” she said. “Of course I was a part of it, but had it not been for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s because of their hard work and determination to make sure that I continue to be in this leadership position. As always, I give thanks to them.”
She gives thanks for their votes, of course, but also for the many, many other things they give her: drawings or earrings or medallions made with the tiniest beads. Little tokens of appreciation for a chief they respect.
“It’s special to me, when people tell me that they want to give me something,” Anderson said. “The other day, I was at a restaurant, eating. A young lady picked up my tab. She’s a student. She’s still in college and probably has a lot of expense. Who pays for the chief’s dinner or lunch? It meant so much to me.”
It’s those small gestures, according to Anderson, that remind her why she does what she does — why she works the long hours and makes necessary adjustments to her already packed schedule. Anderson says the time she spends with her own family (a husband, adult children, a teenager and grandchildren) has become even more special because it’s so limited.
Her job is all day, every day. She runs from appointment to appointment, flying to Washington, lobbying for grant money, dealing with weighty financial issues, negotiating contracts, planning business moves, finding money in the budget for maintaining the tribe’s growing infrastructure, appearing at festivals and lunches and events. It never stops.
“Maybe I couldn’t be at a certain game or certain event for my son. I have a son who’s a ninth grader,” Anderson said. “I’ve pretty much made it to a lot of the stuff that he had, but there are some that I had to miss because I was on travel or I had some board meeting that was very important.”
But despite the long hours and the pressures, Anderson knows her hard work will be well worth it.
“People feel that being chief is this great wonderful thing, and it is. It’s full of honor and full of pride, but it’s also a lot of responsibility,” Anderson said. “Every day, I wake up knowing that the decisions I make affect 10,000-plus tribal members in one form or fashion.”
Vaughn says that like Phillip Martin before her, Anderson has a natural talent for building relationships with people who can help the tribe, like local, state and federal offcials and leaders across Indian Country.
“She has a great relationship with our congressional delegation,” Vaughn said. “She has a great relationship with the President of the United States to some extent. That speaks a lot about her character and the integrity that she brings to the office of the chief.”
There are still critics, of course. And the chief still has a lot of work to do. Improving tribal housing is a top priority, as well as providing new job opportunities on the reservation.
“We’ve got long-term plans for the tribe, including school, community and infrastructure improvements. We also have recently launched a $10 million housing plan to build new homes on the reservation,” Anderson said.
Education is high on her list as well.
“I think it’s important that we continue to educate our children so that they’re ready for the next step,” she said.
The tribe’s schools have already improved a great deal. She has been appointed to the National Indian Education Advisory Council by the president. And in 2015, Jewell, the Interior Secretary, toured two of the tribal schools. She said they were functioning at such a high level that they should be a model for struggling tribal schools across Indian Country.
And under Anderson’s leadership, a tribal scholarship program which provides money for tuition and other qualified school expenses to tribal members has increased its funding because of the growing youth population.
In addition to education, tribal medical care has taken leaps forward with the completion of a new three-story, 180,000-square-foot health center that includes a 20-bed inpatient facility, 42 exam rooms, 16-chair dental unit, a pediatric dental unit, behavioral health and community and public health services, emergency medical services and more.
For the first time, there is a primary care pediatric unit, respiratory therapy unit, eye care services and several new specialists. There is a diabetes unit and Anderson hopes it will accelerate efforts to reverse the diabetes epidemic that has swept through one-fifth of the Mississippi Choctaw.
The building’s décor incorporates Choctaw cultural elements to celebrate tribal artistry. But best of all, it’s located right on the reservation. “That’s something I’m very proud of,” she said. “The Choctaw Health Center is an example of governments and communities working together to build something vital for the Choctaw people. It’s a formula that works and something we need to continue to build on for future projects on the reservation.”
According to Vaughn, that long list means federal funding is “never enough.”
“The federal government has a responsibility to tribes across the United States,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t get 100 percent of the types of assistance that we need through the federal government, in regards to — for example — construction of schools.”
And that’s where the chief comes in.
“We don’t have the luxury of a municipality to assess all kinds of taxes and bonds and things of that sort,” Vaughn said. “A lot of things rely on the work that the chief does in regards to the types of grants and things that we can apply for, in addition to what the federal government provides us, also in regards to economic development.”
That work on economic development has brought the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians far from when Anderson stepped into office, but there is another beneficiary just a few miles away: Philadelphia, population 7,500.
James Young is the mayor, the first African-American to hold his office. He was elected in 2009 and has watched Phyliss Anderson become a “great asset” to Philadelphia. But the tribe itself is a strong advantage to the area. It is, after all, one of Mississippi’s major employers. And the tribe is a good neighbor, besides.
“We are blessed to have a whole other nation within our county and the support that’s going back and forth between the two groups,” Young said. “The Choctaw tribe has been a plus for this area for many years, and hopefully, it’s just going to get greater.”
That $150 million payroll and approximately 5,900 jobs the reservation has created has raised the standard of living for the area. The reservation contributes billions of dollars to the state’s GDP, according to the most recent economic impact study.
In addition to being a savvy businesswoman, Young said one of Anderson’s strongest qualities is that she looks ahead.
“This next generation of citizens and workers … If we don’t do a good job of laying a foundation, the opportunities are dwindling for you,” he said. “So building for the next generation — from housing to economic development to health care to actually preventive health care with the clinics that they have — that’s looking out for the future.”
When Anderson was a girl, she’d follow her mother to a café where the color of their skin meant they had to use the back door. Her mother worked at the café and after school she would help her mother wash dishes.
“The good thing about that is I got to eat my hamburgers free,” Anderson said. “After we finished up, there was always great food to eat. It’s a happy memory of my mom because she showed me what hard work is.”
Nearly five decades later, Anderson says that taught her a valuable lesson.
“I think that’s one of the things that has helped me to become the person that I am, is that you learn a lot growing up and you have to work for everything that you have and get,” she said. “It seems to have more meaning.”
It also taught her the importance of compassion, a quality she’s carried all the way to become chief of the Choctaw.
“My mother always taught us the importance of treating others the way we would want to be treated. While I might not have had a lot of material possessions growing up, I always had the thing I needed most and that was love,” Anderson said.
“I always wanted to treat people with kindness. Those are impressions and legacies that last,” she said.
By Anna McCollum. Photos by Chi Kalu.
The Meek School faculty and students published “Unconquered and Unconquerable” online on August 19, 2016, to tell stories of the people and culture of the Chickasaw and Choctaw. The publication is the result of Bill Rose’s depth reporting class taught in the spring. Emily Bowen-Moore, Instructor of Media Design, designed the magazine.
“The reason we did this was because we discovered that many of them had no clue about the rich Indian history of Mississippi,” said Rose. “It was an eye-opening experience for the students. They found out a lot of stuff that Mississippians will be surprised about.”
Print copies are available October 2016.