Gov. Overton James
1925 - 2015
Overton James (Indian name - Itoahtubbi) was born July 21, 1925, in Bromide, Oklahoma, to Rufus (Cub) James and Vinnie May Seely James, both enrolled Chickasaws. Gov. James was raised in Wapanucka, Oklahoma, where he graduated from high school in 1942. In 1947, Gov. James married Evelyn June Richardson, who preceded him in death on May 2, 1996.
Gov. James served in the U.S. Navy “Seabees” in the South West Pacific during WWII. He also served in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the Army Reserve from 1947-1957. After two and one half years in the United States Navy, Gov. James returned to Oklahoma and resumed his education at Southeastern State College in Durant. Graduating with a B.A. in education in 1949, he taught and coached for 10 years in schools at Ravia, Caddo and Shattuck. In 1955, he earned a master’s degree from Southeastern.
Gov. James was the youngest man to serve as governor of the Chickasaw Nation. He was appointed governor by President Kennedy in 1963 and helped lead the Chickasaw people out from under the control of the federal government into a new era of self-governance. He 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. He held office until 1987.
Gov. James was the first Chickasaw inducted into the tribe’s hall of fame. He helped lead the Seeley Chapel movement, a grassroots initiative of Chickasaw people who fought to regain the right to once again elect their own leaders and reestablish their status as a sovereign nation.
As governor, he lobbied the Indian Health Service (IHS) 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. Gov. James was also instrumental in persuading the federal government to establish an Indian Housing Authority in Oklahoma.
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 Chickasaw people.
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. That struggle culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court victory in 1970 and — after three more decades of negotiation — a congressionally approved trust settlement.
Gov. 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.