Earl Old Person, the longest-serving elected tribal official in the United States who met every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, has died after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 92.
An advocate for the advancement of the Blackfeet people and the preservation of cultural traditions, Old Person was elected to his first term as a tribal council member in 1954, at the age of 25, and had beechief of the Montana tribe in 1978.
He died at the Blackfeet Community Hospital, the tribe announced Wednesday night: “A chapter of our history has come to a close,” the tribe said.
The news of Old Person’s death rippled across the Big Sky State on Thursday, with Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines mourning his loss on Twitter.
“Chief Old Person was a fierce advocate for the Blackfeet Nation and all of Indian Country for his entire life, and the world is a better place because he was in it. He will never be replaced, and we are holding his loved ones and the Blackfeet people in our hearts,” Tester said.
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Daines called Old Person “a great Montanan and a great American” and added, “It was an honor to know him.”
In addition to encouraging unity and tribal culture, Old Person was a leading advocate for access to higher education. Though he never attended college himself, Old Person holds an honorary doctorate of human letters from the University of Montana, which, in 1991, endowed a $5,000 scholarship in his name for Blackfeet students attending the university in Missoula.
In 1999, Old Person became the University of Lethbridge’s first recipient of the Christine Miller Memorial Award for Excellence in Native American Studies.
“He not only led the Blackfeet Nation with wisdom and grace but also had a profound impact on the Griz family,” University of Montana President Seth Bodnar said on Twitter. “The weight of this loss will last. We are all better for having been influenced by him.”
Old Person was born on April 13, 1929, to a large family led by parents Juniper and Milly (Bear Medicine) Old Person. He grew up learning traditional Blackfeet stories, song and dance and spoke Blackfoot as his first language.
Old Person credited much of his success to his parents. He told the Great Falls Tribune of the USA TODAY Network in July 2020 that his parents encouraged him to excel in school.
“We had no running water, no heat, but every morning, they would wake us up and say in Indian, ‘Jump up! Try!'” he recalled. “Those words helped us start our day right.”
In 1936, the Browning High School basketball team earned its first trip to the state tournament in Great Falls, where then-7-year-old Old Person performed at halftime. Two years later, he traveled to Cleveland and New York City, where he performed traditional Blackfeet song and dance for schools, colleges and civic organizations.
Later, Old Person played basketball for Browning High School and wore his hair in long braids, keeping with Native tradition.
“Some of the coaches didn’t like my braids,” Old Person told the Tribune in 2020. “But I never changed them. I had fun over it.”
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One year after graduating from Browning High School, in 1947, Old Person was selected to attend the sixth World Boy Scout Jamboree north of Paris. He was the only Indian Boy Scout honored, and he set up his father’s teepee just north of Paris where he camped.
“Don’t be afraid of one another, our young people need to know that,” he told the Tribune in 2020. “Help one another out. Uplift each other and if you can protect someone, do it. We have spiritual ways. There’s someone looking down on us.”
Contributing: David Murray, Great Falls Tribune.