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Chickasaw Headquarters Move to Ada, 1975-76

By Richard Green

December 2002 Chickasaw Times

After the $150,000 in tribal funds were expended for the purchase and initial renovation of the Chickasaw Motor Inn in 1972, it was clear that no significant outlays from the tribe's remaining $316,000 trust funds were going to be made.[i] That meant the tribe's future growth was tied almost exclusively to winning federal funds. The means to compete came through a grant to the Five Civilized Tribes Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Inter-Tribal Council.[ii] The grant, from the Department of Commerce's Office of Native American Programs (ONAP), enabled each tribe to establish a planning department.

The Chickasaws’ first planner was Emil Farve, who said that during his first year, 1974-75, the tribe received nearly $2 million in federal grants. "Even though initially we were often competing against cities and counties for funds, we were successful because Indian tribes always met the criteria: educationally, economically, we were the lowest of the low."

Ted Key, who wrote the most grant proposals for the tribe between 1975-79, estimated that 90 percent of his proposals were funded or re-funded. Grants and contracts enabled the tribe to acquire more programs and services, employees to staff them and even buildings to house them in without depleting tribal trust funds.[iii] In fact, by late 1976, the trust funds had increased to approximately $450,000 through interest and in repayments from the Chickasaw Motor Inn. In fiscal 1976, interest on the trust funds was about twice the amount deducted to cover the tribe's annual budget. The budget, $20,100, included the governor's salary of $5,200, his business expenses and benefits of about $4,200; the balance entailed expenses not covered by grants, such as tribal meetings.[iv]

While revenue exceeded expenses, capital assets through federal grants were growing by leaps and bounds. In 1974-75, funding for three new buildings materialized. A HUD grant provided a new office building and a separate maintenance facility for the Chickasaw Housing Authority in Ada. This move in the summer 1975 alleviated the overcrowding that on occasion was manifested with three people sharing a desk. The land on North Country Club Road had been used by government agencies and was deeded to the Chickasaw Housing Authority. Its former building was turned over to the housing authority of the city of Ada. [v]

Overcrowding was also a fact of life by 1975 in the Chickasaw Nation's suite of offices in the motor inn in Sulphur. In a little more than a year, the number of employees there had nearly tripled, to more than 50. The office that had been reserved for Governor Overton James (who still worked full time for the state of Oklahoma) was now being used by others and many of the desks were communal. All available space for offices had been taken, and there was nowhere to go but out. Moreover, Emil Farve, as the governor's assistant in Sulphur, said he was hiring almost anybody who asked for a job. "I wasn't advertising jobs in the newspapers, but when somebody asked, I would hire 'em and then arrange with the agency project officer (overseeing the grant) to revise the budget to create the job." [vi]

A new tribal office building was obviously needed. And yet, a grant proposal is not usually submitted unless it has been solicited by a government agency. Although that had not happened yet, the legislative catalyst for the expansion of tribal governments was passed on January 2, 1975. It was called the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act; it was the culmination of President Richard Nixon's belief that tribes should take the responsibility for the programs provided by the federal government. Ultimately, the act was of a more limited nature than the "takeover" bill advocated by Nixon. Because some Indians were fearful that takeovers of programs would lead to termination, the act established a system under which a tribe could contract for parts of educational, health care and other programs. [vii]

Because tribal governments were growing in size nationally, it wouldn't be long before RFPs (requests for proposals) for tribal buildings began showing up. Actually, though, the grant that enabled the Chickasaws to get the jump on many other tribes wasn't intended primarily to provide a building, but employment. The ONAP grant that the Chickasaws applied for and received was intended to combat a high level of unemployment. That is why 75 percent of the $426,000 grant was earmarked for labor. But could the tribe build a headquarters building wherein the costs of materials and labor were so lopsided? Farve and Gov. James decided to worry about that after the tribe had the money. At the groundbreaking ceremony, after Gov. James had turned the first shovelful of dirt, a large crew of Chickasaws with shovels and pickaxes immediately began digging the foundation. It was expected that the project would provide full-time jobs for approximately 35 Chickasaws for a year.[viii]

Just where the groundbreaking was to be held was the subject of intense interest among tribal employees and representatives of cities vying to be selected for the Chickasaw Nation's headquarters. Ardmore, the largest city in the 11-county Chickasaw Nation, was geographically remote from most Chickasaws. [ix] Although Gov. James considered Ada and Sulpher to be in the running, he privately favored Tishomingo "for historical continuity." To his surprise and chagrin, however, city officials didn't "seem that interested." How would sincere interest be manifested? By donating choice real estate to the Chickasaws. Sulphur was the most centrally located site, plus many tribal employees favored it because they lived in or near the town. [x] In December, Sulphur offered 10 acres near the Sulphur Air Park. With an apparent change of heart, Tishomingo offered five acres near the fairgrounds and promised to purchase an adjoining five acres. [xi]

While these offers were acceptable, James noted that both tracts were "out in the boonies." He also felt that the offers had come rather grudgingly; Tishomingo wasn't taking the tribe seriously and Sulphur was taking the tribe for granted.

Ada officials, on the other hand, were enthusiastic and positive from the beginning. Immediately recognizing the potential economic benefits of having the Chickasaws headquartered in Ada, Ted Savage and James Thompson took Gov. James on a tour of the sites owned by the city's industrial trust authority. Savage, director of the Chamber of Commerce and Thompson, president of the trust authority, did a first-class selling job, according to James. "At first they drove me out around the airport and so on. Then, just in passing, Thompson pointed to some little league baseball fields and said the authority owned that land, too. Said it was 7 or 8 acres. It was in an area of Ada bordering a commercial district and an industrial area. I told 'em, 'You let us have that land, and we'll construct our building there.' They said it wasn't available. I said, 'See what you can do.'" [xii]

Savage and Thompson knew that the Chickasaw Nation was already a major employer in the area and under Overton James the tribe might some day rival Pontotoc County's number one employer, East Central State University. Therefore, the trust authority's priorities needed to be rearranged. First, the authority voted to move the little league complex near the fairgrounds and then it deeded the 7 1/2 acres, appraised at $100,000, to the Chickasaw Nation for its headquarters building. Meanwhile, James had asked all three cities to submit concrete written proposals by mid-December. In a special meeting at Okmulgee on January 6, the governor's Advisory Council accepted James's recommendation to select Ada. But in a rare occurrence, the council vote wasn't unanimous and Sulphur ran a close second. [xiii]

The grant that provided funds for a new tribal headquarters building in Ada made it almost imperative that the tribe act as its own contractor. With 75 percent of the amount designated for labor, it was necessary to cut expenses to the bone.

As Gov. James was still employed by the state education department to run its Indian program, he couldn't oversee the construction on a daily basis. So he gave the job to his top aide, Emil Farve. Half Chickasaw, 3/8 Choctaw and 1/8 French, Farve was born and raised in the Ardmore area school of hard knocks. He liked to learn and was bright but found school tedious and couldn't see that it was getting him anywhere. What he wanted most was a good paying job; he had worked selling newspapers and at odd jobs from an early age, but by the time he was 17, Ardmore looked like a dead-end employment-wise. So he dropped out of high school and prevailed on his parents to let him join the Army.[xiv]

Five years later he returned to Ardmore with a GED (general equivalency diploma), knowledge of military weapons and no greater prospects for a good job than when he left in 1958. One day just to have something to do, he and his Indian friends decided to have a basketball tournament in a local gym. But they were told it was only for students. So, Emil decided they needed their own gym and set about looking for a funding source. In due course, he learned that a new federal agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity, could provide money for such a project but that the grantees needed a board of directors. He found three of his friends, also day laborers like himself to agree to be on the board.

But before he could achieve the next step, and he would find out what it was when he delivered the names of his board, one of the members resigned because someone had told him that OEO was a Communist organization. The ensuing confusion among the remaining board members caused the project to unravel. But the episode provided a glimpse of Emil as an incipient grant writer, resourceful and unintimidated, but rough around the edges. He might have gotten his gym built if only he'd known for sure that OEO wasn't Communist controlled. [xv]

A decade later, Farve was in charge of putting together and coordinating a workforce for the construction of the new 8,000 square foot Chickasaw headquarters. Aside from the usual array of skilled workers, Farve hired 40 to 50 unskilled Indian laborers from which a cadre of about 30 worked on the building for a year. He did this first because he had a soft spot in his heart for Indians trying to get work. But there was also a practical reason. Because only 25 percent of the grant could go for building materials, Ray James, the architect for the project, suggested to Farve that materials be scrounged wherever and whenever possible. He knew a man, for example, who wanted a barn removed from his property. A farmer whose land abutted the Arbuckle Mountains said the Chickasaws would be doing him a favor to remove large rocks from land he wanted to till. Farve got 16 surplus 3/4-ton trucks from Ft. Bliss, Texas; some worked and some needed help to work but they were used by his brigade to transport the disassembled barn and rocks to the building site. [xvi]

Never having been a contractor before, Farve had logistical problems; at times skilled workers were called in prematurely. And with the almost continuous presence of his group of unskilled laborers, the building site often was crawling with people. Other contractors came by to roll their eyes and make disparaging remarks about "the dumb Indians." Even if some of their criticism was valid, Farve felt their motivation was jealousy. And what he cared most deeply about was that hard-core unemployed Indians were working.[xvii] Other laborers who were melded into the project came from the tribe's CETA (jobs training) program. [xviii]

As the building was going up, so was the number of tribal staff members. As a result, even before the building was completed, Ted Key had submitted a $361,000 grant proposal under the Local Public Works Act of 1976 for the expansion of the headquarters building. The expansion would include two new wings totaling 6,000 square feet.[xix] The new building was completed on schedule in February 1977. An open house was held on March 26, with an exuberant Gov. James saying, "Andrew Jackson did not know what a great favor he did for us by moving the Indian nations from Mississippi to Oklahoma." Some 90 employees in eight departments were now housed in the new building. Fortunately for everyone, word came about this time that Key's proposal had been funded for the building's expansion. Construction was to begin that summer. [xx]

It was a bittersweet time for Farve. On one hand, the new building looked great, was badly needed and had provided a year of paychecks for many Chickasaws and other Indians. On the other hand, Farve knew his men, who had worked so hard and felt pride at what they had accomplished, were very unlikely to find similar employment again. [xxi] Furthermore, it was widely understood by employees that the cost of the building had exceeded the grant by about $40,000. "Emil did a good job on the building in many ways," said Gov. James. "But I told him repeatedly that he had to stay within the budget and he didn't." The only way to pay for the overrun was with trust funds, a move that the fiscally conservative governor found galling and embarrassing. [xxii]

He called in Farve and told him he was through as his administrative assistant. Aside from the cost overrun, James said, there had been too many complaints about his management from departmental people. The governor told Farve he could research the Arkansas riverbed case or head the planning department. Farve thought the riverbed case was over and he wasn't a lawyer anyway. Heading the planning department wasn't appealing because he would have had to bump Ted Key, who had been doing an excellent job. Farve didn't believe there had been a cost overrun but couldn't prove it and was hurt by his colleagues' allegations. After a few weeks of drifting, Farve resigned and moved on. [xxiii]

Despite this unpleasant ending, during the summer of 1977 few negative thoughts crossed the governor's mind. The bid on the construction of the headquarters' two new wings had been so low that in July the tribe found it could get an additional wing and still be within the grant total from the Economic Development Administration. The three new wings would more than double the size of the existing building. The wings were designed to complement the original tribal office through the use of exposed wooden beams and tilt-up concrete walls inlaid with native stone. [xxiv] The expansion was finished in March 1978. In little more than a year the Chickasaw government had moved from several small rooms in the motor inn to a beautiful and serviceable 16,000 square-foot headquarters building that was emblematic of the tribe's rapid expansion, credibility and perhaps even its motto: "the unconquered and unconquerable Chickasaws."


  1. 1. "Summary of Tribal Funds," The Chickasaw Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 3, l973. Chickasaw tribal papers, Ada, OK.
  2. [Emil Farve, interview, Feb. 23, 1993. Author's files.
  3. Ted Key, interview, Jan. 19, 1993, Author's files.
  4. "Attendance at Meet is Double 1975 Record," Chickasaw Times, Oct.-Dec. 1976.
  5. "Chickasaw Authority Plans Move” Ada Evening News. While no date was provided it must have been in July 1975.
  6. Farve, interview, March 19, 1993, Author's files.
  7. Francis Prucha, "The Great Father," U. of Nebraska Press, 1986, 379-80.
  8. "300 Attend Groundbreaking Ceremony for Tribal Office," The Chickasaw Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1976.
  9. Kennedy Brown, long-time tribal official, interview, March 19, 1993. Author's files.
  10. Overton James, interview, Oct. 6, 1992, Author's files.
  11. John Clift, "Decision Near for Chickasaw Headquarters Site," The Daily Oklahoman, Dec. 11, 1975, 59. 
  12. Overton James, interview, Oct. 6, 1992, Author's files.
  13. "Ada Picked as Site for Indian Complex, Ada Evening News, Jan. 9, 1976.
  14. Farve, interviews, Feb. 23 and March 19, 1993. Author's files.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Kennedy Brown, interview, March 19, 1993. Author's files.
  19. "Chickasaw Building Nearing Completion,” Ada Evening News, Dec. 29, 1976.
  20. "Tribal Office Building Dedicated," Ada Evening News, March 27, 1977.
  21. Farve, interview, March 19, 1993.
  22. James, interview, March 18, 1993. 
  23. Emil Farve, interview. 
  24. "Chickasaws Get More Space," Ada Evening News, July 7, 1977.

Last Updated: 09/2/2014