Page 28 of Ford County

The Choctaw Indians built the only landlocked casino in the state. It was in Neshoba County, two hours south of Clanton, and there one night Bobby Carl rolled the dice for the last time. He lost a small fortune, and driving home under the influence, he swore he would never gamble again. Enough was enough. It was a sucker's game. There was an excellent reason the smart boys keep building new casinos.

Bobby Carl Leach considered himself a smart boy.

His research soon revealed that the Department of the Interior recognized 562 tribes of Native Americans across the country, but only the Choctaw in Mississippi. The state had once been covered with Indians - at least nineteen major tribes - but most had been forcibly relocated in the 1830s and sent to Oklahoma. Only three thousand Choctaw remained, and they were prospering nicely from their casino.

Competition was needed. Further research revealed that at one time the second largest population had belonged to the Yazoo, and long before the white man arrived, their territory had covered virtually all of what is now the north half of Mississippi, including Ford County. Bobby Carl paid a few bucks to a genealogical research firm which produced a suspicious family tree that purported to prove that his father's great-grandfather had been one-sixteenth Yazoo.

A business plan began to take shape.

Thirty miles west of Clanton, on the Polk County line, there was a country grocery store owned by a slightly dark-skinned old man with long braided hair and turquoise on every finger. He was known simply as Chief Larry, primarily because he claimed to be a full-blooded Indian and said he had papers to prove it. He was a Yazoo, and proud of it, and to convince folks of his authenticity, he stocked all manner of cheap Indian artifacts and souvenirs along with the eggs and cold beer. A tepee made in China sat next to the highway, and there was a lifeless, geriatric black bear asleep in a cage by the door. Since Chief's was the only store within ten miles, he managed a decent traffic from the locals and some gas and a snapshot from the occasional lost tourist.

Chief Larry was an activist of sorts. He seldom smiled, and he gave the impression that he carried the weight of his long-suffering and forgotten people. He wrote angry letters to congressmen and governors and bureaucrats, and their responses were tacked to the wall behind the cash register. At the slightest provocation, he would launch into a bitter diatribe against the latest round of in' justices imposed upon "his people." History was a favorite topic, and he would and could go on for hours about the colorful and heartbreaking theft of "his land." Most of the locals knew to keep their comments brief as they paid for their goods. A few, though, enjoyed pulling up a chair and letting Chief rant.

For almost two decades Chief Larry had been tracking down other Yazoo descendants in the area. Most of those he wrote to had no inkling of their Indian heritage and certainly wanted no part of it. They were thoroughly assimilated, mixed, intermarried, and ignorant of his version of their gene pool. They were white! This was, after all, Mississippi, and any hint of tainted blood meant something far more ominous than a little ancestral frolicking with the natives. Of those who bothered to write back, almost all claimed to be of Anglo stock. Two threatened to sue him, and one threatened to kill him. But he labored on, and when he had organized a motley crew of two dozen desperate souls, he founded the Yazoo Nation and made application to the Department of the Interior.

Years passed. Gambling arrived on reservations throughout the country, and suddenly Indian land became more valuable.

When Bobby Carl decided he was part Yazoo, he quietly got involved. With the help of a prominent law firm in Tupelo, pressure was applied to the proper places in Washington, and official tribal status was granted to the Yazoo. They had no land, but then none was needed under federal guidelines.

Bobby Carl had the land. Forty acres of scrub brush and loblolly pine just down the highway from Chief Larry's tepee.

When the charter arrived from Washington, the proud new tribe met in the rear of Chief's store for a ceremony. They invited their congressman, but he was occupied at the Capitol. They invited the governor, but there was no response. They invited other state officials, but more important duties called them. They invited the local politicians, but they, too, were working too hard elsewhere. Only a lowly and pale-faced undersecretary of some strain showed up from the DOI and handed over the paperwork. The Yazoo, most as pale faced as the bureaucrat, were nonetheless impressed by the moment. Not surprisingly, Larry was unanimously elected as chief for a lifetime. There was no mention of a salary. But there was a lot of talk about a home, a piece of land on which they could build an office or a headquarters, a place of identity and purpose.

The following day, Bobby Carl's maroon DeVille slid into the gravel parking lot at Chief's. He had never met Chief Larry and had never stepped inside the store. He took in the fake tepee, noticed the peeling paint on the exterior walls, sneered at the ancient gas pumps, stopped at the bear's cage long enough to determine that the creature was in fact alive, then walked inside to meet his blood brother.

Fortunately, Chief had never heard of Bobby Carl Leach. Otherwise, he may have sold him a diet soda and wished him farewell. After a few sips, and after it became obvious that the customer was in no hurry to leave, Chief said, "You live around here?"

"Other side of the county," Bobby Carl said as he touched a fake spear that was part of an Apache warrior set on a rack near the counter. "Congratulations on the federal charter," he said.

Chief's chest swelled immediately, and he offered his first smile. "Thank you. How did you know? Was it in the paper?"

"No. I just heard. I'm part Yazoo."

With that, the smile instantly vanished, and Chief's black eyes focused harshly on Bobby Carl's expensive wool suit, vest, starched white shirt, loud paisley tie, gold bracelets, gold watch, gold cuff links, gold belt buckle, all the way down to the javelin-tipped cowboy boots. Then he studied the hair - tinted and permed with little strands wiggling and bouncing around the ears. The eyes were bluish green, Irish and shifty. Chief, of course, preferred someone who resembled himself, someone with at least a few Native American characteristics. But these days he had to take what he could get. The gene pool had become so shallow that calling oneself a Yazoo was all that mattered.

"It's true," Bobby Carl pressed on, then he touched his inside coat pocket. "I have documentation."

Chief waved him off. "No, it's not necessary. A pleasure, Mr. - "

"Leach, Bobby Carl Leach."

Over a sandwich, Bobby Carl explained that he was well acquainted with the chief of the Choctaw Nation, and suggested that the two great men meet. Chief Larry had long envied the Choctaw for their standing and their efforts to preserve themselves. He had also read about their wildly profitable casino business, the proceeds of which supported the tribe, built schools and clinics, and sent the young people away to college on scholarship. Bobby Carl, the humanitarian, seized upon the social advances of the Choctaw due to their wisdom in tapping into the white man's lust for gambling and drinking.

The following day, they left for a tour of the Choctaw reservation. Bobby Carl drove and talked nonstop, and by the time they arrived at the casino, he had convinced Chief Larry that they, the proud Yazoo, could duplicate the venture and prosper as a young nation. The Choctaw chief was curiously tied up with other business, but an underling provided a halfhearted tour of the sprawling casino and hotel, as well as the two eighteen-hole golf courses, convention center, and private airstrip, all in a very rural and forlorn part of Neshoba County.