BROWNING, Mont. - Bill Old Chief has a vision for the Blackfeet Nation, and it's not the status quo.
"I believe that it is time for Indian people to rise up and take our rightful place," he told a recent gathering of tribal leaders. "We have no place left to go. We do not have time to play games. We do not have time to kick back. Our time has come, and it's time for us to speak up."
Old Chief has been speaking up - forcefully and eloquently - for the past two years, ever since his meteoric rise from a political unknown to the powerful chairmanship of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. He's been turning heads and ruffling some feathers ever since, but he clearly has no intention of slowing down.
"I, as a leader, can't tolerate 69 percent unemployment," he says emphatically. "I can't tolerate higher diabetes rates. I can't tolerate higher cancer rates. I can't tolerate our people having no place to live. "
Old Chief, 43, is clearly a rising star in the nation's rank of American Indian leaders. He and the other members of the Blackfeet council are staking new ground on nearly every front, and people at all levels are clearly beginning to listen.
"Change is not going to come from the federal government," Old Chief explains. "I really believe if there's going to be change, it has to come from us. I as a leader have to instill hope in our people. Out of all the reservations, if we could change one, then other reservations would follow. We need to choose our own road. Every tribe has to pick their own destiny."
Hope has been a standard theme in Old Chief's life. He grew up poor and, in his words, "on the other side of the tracks" in Browning, the largest town on the 1.6-million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He and his family were migrant fruit pickers throughout most of his childhood. The Old Chiefs had to rely on welfare some of the time, and hope for a better life was always in the forefront.
"I remember leaving at night, eating bologna and bread," he says. "We wouldn't have any money. We'd go over to Yakima (Wash.) with no place to stay.
"We did the 'Grapes of Wrath' thing," he continues. "I grew up eating commodity cheese, swimming in a creek that had sucker worms in it. I know what it's like to be discriminated against, to be called a 'dirty Indian.' I know what it is to be hungry. I've had to push hard to get past the barriers."
Old Chief says he grew tired of trying to hide his background while growing up. To acknowledge that his family was destitute at times was more than he could bear, however, and he says he learned to lie to other kids to save face.
"You learn how to cover up," he says. "But you also lose part of yourself, your self-esteem" by lying.
Instead of creating a delusional world where everything was rosy, Old Chief says he decided early on that he would tell the truth, no matter how much it hurt.
"I'm not going to tell you a story," he says now. "I'm going to tell you the facts. We know what we're doing is right and just. I'm not going to sit back and say everything is all right. If I offend you, it will be because of the facts."
While the charismatic Old Chief may sound full of righteous bluster, he is not. In fact, he says his inherent shyness is probably the biggest impediment to what he's trying to do - make outsiders understand Indian people and the many challenges they're trying to overcome.
During a recent stop in the Montana capital of Helena to attend the Governor's Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that draws hundreds of political and religious luminaries from around the state, Old Chief was unexpectedly asked to speak to the crowd. The hushed audience hung on every word as he described the abject poverty and racism most Indian people face, and the measures being taken to improve the standard of living on the Blackfeet Reservation.
After the event, Old Chief was nearly overwhelmed by the number of state leaders and others who went out of their way to thank him and wish him well.
While part of the popularity stemmed from the fact that he was the first tribal leader to address the gathering in decades, Old Chief maintained his reputation of being a respected humanitarian who has drawn the line when it comes to change.
"In my experience he is congenial and candid and thoughtful," says Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican and former state attorney general who has at times been at odds with Montana's tribes.
"He speaks from the heart and studies hard. Bill really cares about the people he serves."
"I don't lead people on," Old Chief says. "I tell them they never have to read between the lines with me."
Old Chief says he makes a special effort to reach out to non-Indians, in part because he wants to dispel three main myths: That Indians "get free homes, free education and a check once a month."
Perhaps more than anything, he wants other political leaders, especially at the state and federal level, to listen to Indian concerns and respect Native peoples and their inherent sovereignty.
But Old Chief also realizes that being an effective advocate means knowing how to play your hand, one card at a time. He also knows he must not lash out in frustration, even though that's sometimes the easiest path to follow.
"Things happen very fast at this level," he observes. "You can either do it in a negative way or a positive way. There's a fine line between being pushy and being heard. If you're not effective the first time, you might as well close up shop."
In recent months the Blackfeet Council made headlines for creating a new "off-shore" depository for wealthy investors, challenging the hiring procedures of the U.S. Census Bureau, pushing to improve tribal member access across the border between the United States and Canada, and fighting a General Services Administration ruling that allows non-Indian contractors to avoid paying tribal assessments while building a new U.S. Customs station north of Browning.
The council, under Old Chief's guidance, is taking on the National Park Service in a land dispute in adjacent Glacier National Park, and challenging a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decree over environmental impact requirements for oil and gas exploration. The tribe is standing up to the state on a variety of fronts, demanding that Indian people be treated as equals who can guide their own future.
"We're not invisible people," he says. "Some people in Montana think we are. But we're going to come out more and more."
To prove they mean business, Old Chief and other Blackfeet leaders stand behind their words. In the case of the customs station, a group of council members, backed by members of the tribal police force, temporarily shut the construction project down after the federal government refused to budge.
Last year, the council persuaded HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo to see reservation housing problems firsthand. A few months ago, Blackfeet leaders organized a delegation of 21 disgruntled tribal members and paid an impromptu visit to Keith Beartusk, the Billings area director of the BIA. The meeting, he says, resulted in immediate changes in the way the BIA deals with the tribe.
"Indian people are not going to hide in a corner. We're taking our place in Montana."
Old Chief says he never figured he'd end up leading the Blackfeet Tribe, which boasts 15,163 members in all 50 states and a number of foreign countries.
He acknowledges, if he'd stayed on his old track, he'd still be doing maintenance work for the National Park Service.
Old Chief dropped out of high school in his senior year one credit short of graduating. He later earned a general education certificate on his own.
After a stint in the Army, he took a seasonal job in Glacier Park. One of his first duties was cleaning toilets. The job led to a 17-year career with the Park Service, where he worked his way up to supervisor on the crew that helps maintain the famous Going to the Sun Road. He also was Native American coordinator for four years, a position designed to build a bridge between the park and area tribes, especially the Blackfeet.
Along the way, he completed coursework at Blackfeet Community College, the former Eastern Montana College in Billings, and the University of Montana in Missoula, where he's one semester short of finishing a four-year degree. After that, he'd like to pursue a master's degree.
Old Chief ended his Park Service tenure after severely injuring a knee trying to escape an avalanche on the Sun Road. His injury gave him a good reason to seek another direction in his life. About the same time, he explains, "I had a compelling feeling to go and fast."
In mid-January, Old Chief left the comforts of home and wandered to the low hills north of Browning, where he camped out for five days by himself using only water for sustenance. The next January, he did it again, for seven days, and the next year out 10 days.
"My prayer to the Creator was to raise up somebody to lead our people."
During the winter of 1997, Old Chief stayed out 15 days and was joined by other Blackfeet men seeking direction for the tribe. It marked a defining moment for the man who would emerge as a leader.
"I saw this vision so clear that change was going to come to the Blackfeet Reservation, that healing was going to come to our people."
Soon after the fast, Old Chief decided to run for a council seat. He spent about three months canvassing door to door.
"It gave me a whole new perspective on life on the reservation," he says. "I saw the true picture of what our reservation was and that's stayed with me. It's not enough to be born Blackfeet. It's not enough to live on the reservation. You have to learn where you came from."
To his surprise, he overwhelmingly won his first bid for office. Even more surprising, he was immediately elected chairman, though he had no political experience. He replaced Earl Old Person, who served 42 years on the council, 32 years as chairman.
Old Chief gives credit to his staff and advisors for making change possible and for keeping hope alive as he tries to lead his people in a new direction.
"It's not all Bill Old Chief, the man with all the answers. I tell them right from the get-go that I don't have all the answers. The answers have to come from the people.
"There's lots of people on the reservation who have a vision, but they're never given the opportunity to carry it out because someone who doesn't believe in them will shoot them down.
"I've had opportunities in my life that others just dream about."
Old Chief credits his family, especially his parents and his grandmother, for giving him the courage to stand up and fight.
"My dad gave me vision in my life," he says. "He always said I could do what I put my mind to. He had the courage to step out again and again (as a migrant worker.) All it takes sometimes is one person to blaze a trail."
"The people have faith in me," he says. "They chose me to speak up for them. I've promised to give the best that I have. I know I screw up. I know I'll mess up, and I've told people that. This is all new to me. I started to crawl, but I'm not going to crawl all my life. Eventually, I'll be running."