Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation, Dies at 92

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As the longest-serving elected tribal person successful the country, helium pushed for self-sufficiency and greater respect from the national government.

Chief Earl Old Person successful  1998 connected  the Blackfeet Indian Reservation conscionable  eastbound  of Glacier National Park successful  northwestern Montana. “He was specified  a profound person, who knew truthful  overmuch  astir  our culture, our past  and our community,” a Blackfeet Nation subordinate  said.
Credit...Stuart S. White/The Great Falls Tribune, via Associated Press

Clay Risen

Oct. 20, 2021, 5:40 p.m. ET

Earl Old Person, the main of the Blackfeet Nation who for astir 70 years pushed for its economical improvement and self-sufficiency and against what helium saw arsenic an unreliable, astatine times untrustworthy national government, died connected Oct. 13 successful Browning, Mont. He was 92.

The death, successful a hospital, was confirmed successful a connection by the Blackfeet Nation, which said the origin was cancer.

Beginning successful 1954, erstwhile helium was archetypal elected to the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the tribe’s governing body, Chief Old Person positioned himself arsenic a go-between linking his isolated, impoverished Native American assemblage with the remainder of the state and beyond. At his status from the council, successful 2016, helium was the longest-serving elected tribal person successful the country.

He was a regular witnesser astatine legislature hearings and a predominant impermanent of heads of authorities astir the world. He drank beverage with the shah of Iran and spoke astatine the 1988 Republican National Convention. He urged his people to beryllium much entrepreneurial, and helium persuaded authorities officials and task capitalists to supply effect wealth for Blackfeet-owned businesses.

“His connection is plain,” the mag Nation’s Business wrote successful 1981. “‘We don’t privation your help, we privation your business.’”

But Chief Old Person was arsenic assertive successful asserting his tribe’s rights against a national authorities that excessively often ignored them.

In the 1980s, the Department of the Interior began to lease onshore to lipid and state prospectors successful the Badger-Two Medicine region, adjacent to the Blackfeet reservation, successful northwestern Montana. The onshore is ineffable to the Blackfeet, but an 1896 pact ceded it to the national government.

Chief Old Person insisted that the people had fixed lone the onshore rights, not the mineral rights, and helium helped pb a 40-year run to render the portion disconnected limits to extracurricular interests (leaving unfastened the anticipation that the people mightiness 1 time get into the vigor concern itself). Last twelvemonth a tribunal ruling closed the past of the leases connected the land.

“Chief Old Person was a fierce advocator for the Blackfeet Nation and each of Indian Country for his full life,” Senator John Tester, Democrat of Montana, said successful a connection aft the chief’s death. “The satellite is simply a amended spot due to the fact that helium was successful it.”


Credit...Bob Zellar/Billings Gazette, via Associated Press

Earl Old Person was calved connected April 15, 1929, successful a colony extracurricular Browning, conscionable eastbound of Glacier National Park and wrong the 2,285-square mile Blackfeet Indian Reservation. His parents, Juniper and Molly (Bear Medicine) Old Person, were ranchers who spoke astir nary English. Neither did Earl, until simple school, and helium continued to talk the Blackfeet connection astatine home.

His wife, Doris (Bullshoe) Old Person, died successful 2002. His survivors see his daughter, Erlina Old Person, and his son, Earl Jr. He besides had respective grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but circumstantial accusation astir them was not instantly available.

In 1937, erstwhile helium was 8, Earl and respective different Blackfeet students traveled to Cleveland and New York City, wherever they performed tribal dances to rise wealth to physique a caller religion connected the reservation. As an adult, helium inactive spoke reverentially astir riding the subway and eating astatine a edifice connected Broadway owned by the boxer Jack Dempsey.

A decennary later, helium joined a delegation of Boy Scouts sent to the World Scout Jamboree, an planetary festival held that twelvemonth successful Moisson, France, extracurricular Paris. He was the sole American Indian successful the group, and helium pitched his father’s structure on the banks of the Seine.

When helium returned, helium worked arsenic an interpreter successful the tribe’s onshore office, and successful 1954 a contingent of Blackfeet elders persuaded him to tally for the tribal council. He won, and helium remained connected the assembly for the adjacent 62 years, overmuch of it arsenic chairman, with 2 little gaps erstwhile helium mislaid re-election, lone to travel backmost a fewer years later.

In 1978, the household of Jim White Calf, the erstwhile Blackfeet chief, granted him their forebear’s hereditary title, making Chief Old Person the person of the 17,000-member tribe.

One of his abiding concerns was unemployment connected the reservation, whose system was driven by seasonal enactment similar ranching and lumber. Unemployment determination could scope 70 percent successful the winter. In 1971, helium traveled to Washington, wherever helium met with authorities and concern leaders; helium returned with much than $1 cardinal successful effect wealth for businesses similar the Blackfeet Indian Writing Company, which helium opened the adjacent year.

The company’s 40,000-square-foot mill produced millions of pencils and pens a year, selling to firm clients similar Sears, Roebuck. Within 5 years it was turning a tiny profit. (The Blackfeet aboriginal sold the company, and it closed successful the 1990s.)

Chief Old Person besides led the founding of Blackfeet Community College, successful 1974, and aboriginal supported the opening of a casino and the Blackfeet National Bank, some connected the reservation.

More noteworthy than his concern acumen, though, was his relation arsenic a surviving repository of the Blackfeet Nation’s heritage; helium was 1 of the fewer radical near who knew its stories and could walk connected its traditions.

“He was specified a profound person, who knew truthful overmuch astir our culture, our past and our community,” Karla Bird, the president of Blackfeet Community College, said successful an interview. “He was our transportation to our ancestral ways.”

Chief Old Person remained a determined proponent of the tribe’s interests successful Washington. He said helium was suspicious of the government, fixed its agelong way grounds of breached promises to American Indians.

“We statesman to wonder,” helium said astatine a 1971 legislature hearing, “if the Great White Father, the president of the United States, and the Interior Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and different national agencies truly meant what they were saying erstwhile they said they’d admit Indian self-determination.”

Still, helium held retired anticipation for amended attraction from Washington. In 1978, helium led a survey radical commissioned by the Interior Department to see creating a cabinet-level presumption covering Indian affairs. The radical endorsed the idea, but the authorities ne'er followed through.

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