Marshall Pierite is not only Chairman of the Tunica Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana; he’s also a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, a small business owner, a former social worker, a father, and a husband.
“But the most important title I cherish is being a servant to all,” he told Native Business Magazine.
In Marksville, where the Tribe is based, Pierite learned firsthand the value of hard work, persistence, and appreciation for family, community and culture.
“I am one of 12 children, and we grew up in very humble beginnings,” Pierite said. “My father was a sharecropper with a third-grade education and my mom had no formal education to speak of. But both of them had the wisdom and the fortitude to instill the values of love, trust and respect in each and every one of us.”
At age 10, Pierite taught his mother how to read and write — an achievement that he still counts as one of his proudest moments.
“To her, reading and writing was everything, and that was something she was extremely proud of,” he said. “Both of my parents sacrificed everything they had to give all of us children a better life, and everything I do in life is really to honor them and cherish what they have taught us.”
Because of the value his mother placed on literacy, Pierite always dreamed of going to college. But after losing his mother at age 13 and his father at age 17, that dream quickly slipped away. Without the wherewithal to pursue higher education, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, which he says was a challenge itself.
“I was challenged to go into the Marine Corps by one of my high school buddies, and everybody told me I would never make the boot camp,” he said. “They said they’d see me in two or three weeks, but through the grace of God, it took a little longer but I went to boot camp and came out a lean, mean, green machine.”
“I lost 65 pounds there and actually rose through the ranks of corporal through the Marine Corps,” he said.
After getting a formal training in administration at Camp Pendleton and spending time at Twentynine Palms, California, and Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Pierite was honorably discharged in 1985. With his military service concluded, he returned home to help his brothers with their concrete company as an office manager. In June of 1988, he accepted an opportunity as a contract medical care clerk with the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe, kickstarting a career with the Tribe that now spans more than three decades.
From that first job as a contract medical clerk, Pierite’s career with the Tribe has included time serving as director of the Tunica-Biloxi Social Services Department, a Tribal Council member, secretary, treasurer, vice-chairman, and now chairman of the Tribe.
For two centuries, the Tunica-Biloxi has been in the Marksville area, even though the Tribe wasn’t federally recognized as a sovereign Nation until 1981 under the leadership of then-Chairman Earl J. Barbry, Sr. They then began a legal effort to recover the Tunica Treasure — a collection of artifacts that was unearthed and looted from graves in the late 1960s.
“It was the largest collection of American Indian artifacts in the country, and it was dug up from the graves of our ancestors,” Pierite said. “After a decade long legal battle, we finally won that ruling, which became a landmark not only for the Tunica-Biloxi, but for all of Indian Country.”
“It actually laid the foundation for a new federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” he said. “It basically states that any grave goods or objects which are held by museums or federal and state agencies that are identifiable to a particular Tribe must be returned to that Tribe, and by the grace of God, every piece of our Tunica treasure is now housed here at the museum on the Tunica-Biloxi reservation.”
“It also allowed us to establish the very first full-scale artifact conservation laboratory in Indian country, which is still here today at the Tunica-Biloxi reservation,” he said.
That was a launching point for a new era of cultural preservation efforts that the Tribe has undertaken, and Pierite says that today the Tunica-Biloxi is “fighting tooth and nail to bring our traditions back to life.”
One way they’re achieving this is through a language and cultural revitalization program that was launched in 2010 to restore the Tunica language.
“People wanted to see our language back, so we partnered with Tulane University to start the Tunica Language Project, and that effort has reawakened our language,” Pierite said. “Fast forward nine years, and we now have a robust teaching program that teaches our language weekly to a class of around 65 to 68 young people and adults, and we are extremely proud of it. We are also hosting a language camp every summer.”
“We want to enhance our capabilities because our goal within the next 10 years is to make sure every citizen can speak Tunica fluently,” he added.
After federal recognition in 1981 and the restoration of the Tunica Treasure in the summer of 1989, the Tribe began looking toward other ways to generate economic development. On June 3, 1994, they opened Grand Casino Avoyelles, now known as Paragon Casino Resort, which also has the distinction of being the first land-based casino in the state. That initial facility was a 38,000-square-foot casino with 800 slot machines and 12 table games, and it started a cycle of economic rejuvenation that continues today, where the Tribe’s gaming enterprise is the largest employer in central Louisiana.
“Paragon has been a blessing not only to the Tunica-Biloxi, but to Central Louisiana as a whole,” Pierite said. “It changed the way we do business, giving us a wealth creator and a golden goose for a long time.”
“It created opportunities for jobs, it gave us the ability to expand our healthcare services, our housing, and also it allowed us to create our higher education scholarship program. That was a game changer because we had the ability to send our Tribal citizens to colleges and universities throughout the United States, helping them significantly with tuition and fees as well as room and board.”
For a person who dreamed of going to college in his youth but didn’t have the means to do so, this is a particular point of pride.
Another benefit of the development of gaming enterprises is that the Tribe has been able to diversify its economic development efforts.
“Paragon allowed us to go from an agricultural community to a hospitality community,” Pierite said. “It allowed us to transition from a ‘surviving community’ to a ‘thriving community’ overnight.”
In 2011, the Tribe entered the financial services industry with the launch of Mobiloans, an enterprise offering small dollar loans to consumers. The Tribal Council appointed Pierite to be Chairman of the new company’s board, and shortly after, he was also named its CEO.
“We led a great team on this startup company into a multimillion-dollar corporation,” he said. “We’re doing cutting-edge stuff with Mobiloans, and we’re still expanding.”
“We put together a strategic plan where we can piggyback off our lending enterprise to create more job opportunities by doing our own collections and also running our own call centers,” he said. “We have a small call center and we outsource the vast majority of the work, but we want to bring those jobs home here on the reservation by the end of 2020 or 2021. Our goal is to create 1,500 to 1,800 more call center jobs throughout Louisiana and throughout Indian Country.”
“We also want to do our own collections, which is a unique opportunity as well,” he said. “With lending, it is another key component needed to have a successful enterprise that we think we can build upon, as well as our capacity in the analytics arena. So we have a lot of things on board and a lot of things that we are getting ready to implement through strategic partnerships.”
In addition to the Tribe’s gaming and lending businesses, they’re also looking at diversifying into healthcare, as well as creating their own convenience store brand and taking it out to Louisiana and other areas. The burgeoning hemp industry, too, is an area where Pierite sees a lot of promise as a successful target for Tribal business.
Outside of his business roles on behalf of the Tribe, Pierite also launched his own company, The Pierite Group, which is a business advisory company specializing in Tribal governance, corporate governance, and financial services.
Pierite credits his military background as one of the keys to his success.
“In the Marine Corps, I learned from Col. J.D. Sparks and a General that I worked under at Kaneohe Bay that a true leader sometimes has to have the confidence to stand alone and the courage to make tough decisions, but most importantly they need the compassion to listen to the needs of others,” Pierite said. “And a true leader has to rely and depend on the quality of their decisions and actions, but also the integrity of their intent.”
“They taught me that a leader has to stand on core values, be respectful of others’ trust, and have trust in others, but most importantly, they need to not only love everyone they come in contact with, but learn to love what they do,” he added. “So I would say that my greatest asset is my faith in God and I try my very best to make sure every decision I make is a faith-based decision and not a decision based on my feelings. A true leader has to be true to themselves and believe in every decision they make.”
These core values of respect, love, courage, character, and integrity inform all that he does, and he sees them reflected in some of his greatest achievements as a leader of the Tunica-Biloxi.
One, he says, is the Tribe’s Seventh Generation Youth Council, which empowers Tribal Youth by giving them a foundation to become future leaders — not only of the Tunica-Biloxi, but of the region, state and all of Indian Country. Another is an overhaul of the Tribe’s ethics code that guaranteed transparency, accountability, and accessibility to all levels of leadership. A third is the collaboration that has been developed with Southern University in Baton Rouge to establish an Indian Law program. And finally, he cites the first Louisiana Rural Economic Development Summit, held in July 2019 at Paragon Casino Resort, as another way to build relationships and establish the Tribe as a good community partner.
None of this is possible alone, he says, without a lot of great leaders who paved the way.
“Our story doesn’t just begin in 1981 with federal recognition or in 1994 with the casino,” Pierite said. “It began centuries ago about the love of community, and the backbone of the Tunica-Biloxi’s success is because of the love of the community. That same love still exists today.”
“The Tunica-Biloxi wants to be a great community partner, and we want to help others win,” he added. “I think that is the story that needs to be told.”