updated 7/5/2007 10:00:16 PM ET 2007-07-06T02:00:16

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians appeared Thursday to have elected a new chief for the first time in three decades.

Eight-term incumbent Chief Phillip Martin, 81, trailed former Tribal Council member Beasley Denson by 211 votes according to complete but unofficial returns from Tuesday's runoff. The results of the close race are expected to be certified Friday.

During Martin's tenure, the 9,000-member tribe emerged from extreme poverty thanks in large part to the development of a sprawling resort with casinos and a water park on tribal land in the red clay hills of east central Mississippi.

But Martin, 81, was also criticized for the tribe's ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and for the hiring of non-Choctaws in casino management.

Martin and the tribe were not implicated in the corruption probe of Abramoff, now awaiting sentencing on a Capitol Hill public corruption case involving his service to the Choctaws and other tribes. Still, Martin was criticized for not publicly explaining his dealings with Abramoff, including the specific financial transactions between the tribe and Abramoff's firm.

Martin had said he was not aware of any violation of lobbying or disclosure laws in connection Abramoff's activities for the tribe.

Denson, 57, would become only the third elected tribal chief since the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, after which most members were driven to Oklahoma.

"I am relieved that the counting is over and thrilled with the result," Denson said in a news release Thursday. Once the results are certified, the winner will take office next Tuesday.

A recording at the tribal media office Thursday said the office was not accepting any messages. With absentee ballots counted, Denson had 1,697 votes to Martin's 1,486.

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