Former Chickasaw Gov. Overton James worked to secure rights for American Indians

Former Chickasaw Gov. Overton James, who served as the first governor of the tribe after being appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, died Wednesday at age 90. He also sat on numerous inter-tribal committees in efforts to help all American Indians.

ADA — Longtime Chickasaw Nation Governor Overton James died Wednesday at the age of 90.

James was the 27th governor of the Chickasaw Nation and the youngest man to ever hold the position. James, whose Indian name was Itoahtubbi, was born July 21, 1925, in Bromide to Rufus (Cub) James and Vinnie May Seely James, both enrolled Chickasaws.

Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby served as Lt. Gov. for James, and succeeded him as governor when he retired in 1987.

“Overton James served the Chickasaw people during a crucial turning point in our history as a nation,” Anoatubby said. “Appointed governor by President Kennedy in 1963, Overton James helped lead the Chickasaw people out from under the control of the federal government into a new era of self-governance.

“As the first elected Governor of the Chickasaw Nation since Oklahoma statehood, he helped blaze the trail for the success we enjoy today. His leadership was vital to the birth of a political and cultural resurgence which is continuing to transform the Chickasaw Nation.

“While this is a day of sadness for everyone in the Chickasaw Nation as we mourn the loss of a visionary leader and irreplaceable friend, we should also take time to celebrate the great things he accomplished for the Chickasaw people.”

James served as appointed governor until 1971, when he became the first governor of the Chickasaw Nation elected by the Chickasaw people since Oklahoma statehood in 1907.

James was the first Chickasaw inducted into the tribe’s hall of fame. He helped lead the Seeley Chapel movement, a grassroots movement of Chickasaw people who fought to regain the right to once again elect their own leaders and reestablish their status as a sovereign nation.

When James first became governor, the tribe had no other employees and offered no programs or services and the post was primarily an honorary position.

As governor, he lobbied the Indian Health Service and Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives Carl Albert for better health care. In 1968, IHS opened a clinic in Tishomingo, the first health care facility in the Chickasaw Nation.

James was also instrumental in persuading the federal government to establish an Indian Housing Authority in Oklahoma.

The resounding “I bring you greetings from the great unconquered and unconquerable Chickasaw Nation” was his standard greeting at speeches and gatherings. The quote became a traditional greeting continued to the present day.

After the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975, Gov. James was able to obtain enough funding from the federal government to make substantial changes in the economic and social conditions of the Chickasaws.

James was instrumental in the 1972 purchase of what was then known as the Artesian Hotel. Renamed the Chickasaw Motor Inn, it was the first tribal business owned and operated by the tribe. With appropriate renovations and a new business plan, the motor inn quickly became a profit-making venture for the Chickasaw Nation, earning approximately $100,000 for the tribe in its first year of operation.

During his tenure as elected governor, the number of tribal employees grew from about 30 to near 200 and tribal revenues increased from $750,000 in 1975 to approximately $11 million.

During his administration, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations began work with Cherokee colleagues to pursue legal rights to the Arkansas riverbed — rights which extended to revenues derived from oil and gas development of those lands. The struggle culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court victory in 1970 and—after three more decades of negotiation—a congressionally approved trust settlement.

James combined service to his own tribe with service to all American Indians.

He served five terms as president of the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes. He also served as president of the Choctaw-Chickasaw Confederation, chairman of the State Indian Affairs Commission and trustee of the National Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. He was also a member of the Indian Education Subcommittee of the National Council on Indian Opportunity, and a member of the National Congress of American Indians.