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Nora Mabie
Great Falls Tribune

A tireless advocate for the advancement of the Blackfeet people and the preservation of cultural traditions, Blackfeet Nation Honorary Lifetime Chief Earl Old Person has died.

At 92 years old, he was the longest-serving elected tribal official in America. The tribe announced on Wednesday evening that Old Person died at the Blackfeet Community Hospital after a long battle with cancer.

Old Person held valuable cultural knowledge and embodied Blackfeet leadership and tradition. With his passing, the Blackfeet Nation said they "have suffered a huge loss."

"A chapter of our history has come to a close," the tribe announced on Wednesday.

Childhood filled with Blackfeet song and dance

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 Tribune 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 the 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.

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."

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.

Political leader and advocate

At the age of 25, in 1954, Old Person was elected to his first term as a tribal council member. Old Person became chairman 10 years later and he held the position for 34 years. In the 1970s, Old Person served as president of the National Congress of American Indians, where he served on a committee that founded the nation's first tribally owned bank.

In 1978, Old Person gained perhaps his proudest title when he became chief of the Blackfeet Nation. According to archives from the Smithsonian Institution, the last principal chief of the Blackfeet Nation, Chief White Calf, died in 1903. His son, James White Calf, lived to be well over 100. During a formal ceremony in 1978, the family of James White Calf bestowed the tribal chieftainship upon Old Person.

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. In 1998, he was awarded the Jeannette Rankin Civil Liberties Award. One year later, Old Person became the University of Lethbridge's first recipient of the Christine Miller Memorial Award for Excellence in Native American Studies. In 1991, the University of Montana endowed a $5,000 scholarship in his name for Blackfeet students attending the university in Missoula.

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar tweeted that the community "feels deep sadness at the loss of Chief Earl Old Person."

"He not only led the Blackfeet Nation with wisdom and grace but also had a profound impact on the Griz family. The weight of this loss will last. We are all better for having been influenced by him," he wrote.

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In 1993, Old Person presented the first State of the Indian Nation Address before the Montana State Legislature in Helena. He was a leader in numerous organizations, including the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest, Wold Committee to represent the American Indians, the Governor's Task Force on Indian Affairs, National Council of Indian Opportunities and Board of National Indian Banking Committee, among others, according to the University of Montana.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he and his wife mourned "the loss of a great man and a dear friend."

"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," he said.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines called Old Person "a great Montanan and a great American."

"It was an honor to know him," he said.

Dignitary who preached unity

Old Person in 1977 after he was named "Outstanding Indian of the Year" by the Chicago Indian Council Fire

In his political and cultural advocacy, Old Person met every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He was invited by Queen Elizabeth to attend the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, where he met with the British royal family and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

"All of these presidents that we come under, I always say they mean well, but sometimes they get trapped," Old Person told the Tribune in 2020. "They seem to want to help the best they can, and I found that they all tried to do that. You can't please everybody, but you do the best you can to acknowledge people."

In 1971, Old Person was invited to Tehran, Iran to attend ceremonies celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the establishment of the Persian Empire.

"I was asked to have high tea with the shah," Old Person told Tribune journalist Eric Newhouse in 2008. "So I put on my costume and went. He asked me to give a small talk so I stood up and asked the shah to join me. He stood up beside me and I started to speak, but I could see people smiling and I began to get worried so I cut my speech short."

Not knowing that Iranian diplomatic protocol dictated that the Iranian monarch never be made to stand at another's prompting, Old Person had inadvertently violated a 1,000-year-old tradition.

"He responded very graciously," Old Person recalled of the faux pas. "Later, I asked the interpreter if I had done something wrong."

"No," the interpreter replied, "but you did do something that has never been done in the previous 2,500 years when you asked the shah to stand up."

Old Person often spoke of unity and encouraged young people to learn and practice Blackfeet culture.

"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."

Details for Old Person's memorial are forthcoming.

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This story was republished with permission as part of AP Storyshare.