Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation, Dies at 92
Earl Old Person, the chief of the Blackfeet Nation who for nearly 70 years pushed for its economic development and self-sufficiency and against what he saw as an unreliable, at times untrustworthy federal government, died on Oct. 13 in Browning, Mont. He was 92.
The death, in a hospital, was confirmed in a statement by the Blackfeet Nation, which said the cause was cancer.
Beginning in 1954, when he was first elected to the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the tribe’s governing body, Chief Old Person positioned himself as a go-between linking his isolated, impoverished Native American community with the rest of the country and beyond. At his retirement from the council, in 2016, he was the longest-serving elected tribal leader in the country.
He was a regular witness at congressional hearings and a frequent guest of heads of state around the world. He drank tea with the shah of Iran and spoke at the 1988 Republican National Convention. He urged his tribe to be more entrepreneurial, and he persuaded government officials and venture capitalists to provide seed money for Blackfeet-owned businesses.
“His message is plain,” the magazine Nation’s Business wrote in 1981. “‘We don’t want your help, we want your business.'”
But Chief Old Person was equally aggressive in asserting his tribe’s rights against a federal government that too often ignored them.
In the 1980s, the Department of the Interior began to lease land to oil and gas prospectors in the Badger-Two Medicine region, adjacent to the Blackfeet reservation, in northwestern Montana. The land is sacred to the Blackfeet, but an 1896 treaty ceded it to the federal government.
Chief Old Person insisted that the tribe had given only the land rights, not the mineral rights, and he helped lead a 40-year campaign to render the region off limits to outside interests (leaving open the possibility that the tribe might one day get into the energy business itself). Last year a court ruling closed the last of the leases on the land.
“Chief Old Person was a fierce advocate for the Blackfeet Nation and all of Indian Country for his entire life,” Senator John Tester, Democrat of Montana, said in a statement after the chief’s death. “The world is a better place because he was in it.”
Earl Old Person was born on April 15, 1929, in a village outside Browning, just east of Glacier National Park and within the 2,285-square mile Blackfeet Indian Reservation. His parents, Juniper and Molly (Bear Medicine) Old Person, were ranchers who spoke almost no English. Neither did Earl, until elementary school, and he continued to speak the Blackfeet language at home.
His wife, Doris (Bullshoe) Old Person, died in 2002. His survivors include his daughter, Erlina Old Person, and his son, Earl Jr. He also had several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but specific information about them was not immediately available.
In 1937, when he was 8, Earl and several other Blackfeet students traveled to Cleveland and New York City, where they performed tribal dances to raise money to build a new church on the reservation. As an adult, he still spoke reverentially about riding the subway and eating at a restaurant on Broadway owned by the boxer Jack Dempsey.
A decade later, he joined a delegation of Boy Scouts sent to the World Scout Jamboree, an international festival held that year in Moisson, France, outside Paris. He was the sole American Indian in the group, and he pitched his father’s tent along the banks of the Seine.
When he returned, he worked as an interpreter in the tribe’s land office, and in 1954 a contingent of Blackfeet elders persuaded him to run for the tribal council. He won, and he remained on the council for the next 62 years, much of it as chairman, with two brief gaps when he lost re-election, only to come back a few years later.
As the leader of one of the country’s largest Native American tribes, Mr. Old Person became an unofficial spokesman for all of them, a role that frequently took him overseas.
In 1971, he was invited to Iran to help celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire. The shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, asked him to have tea with him, and he later invited the shah to stand with him as he delivered a speech.
But in doing so a hush settled over the room, and he cut his speech short. Later he asked the interpreter what had happened. As far as he knew, the interpreter said, in 2,500 years, no one had ever had the audacity to ask a shah to stand up.
In 1978, the family of Jim White Calf, the previous Blackfeet chief, granted him their forebear’s hereditary title, making Chief Old Person the leader of the 17,000-member tribe.
One of his abiding concerns was unemployment on the reservation, whose economy was driven by seasonal work like ranching and lumber. Unemployment there could reach 70 percent in the winter. In 1971, he traveled to Washington, where he met with government and business leaders; he returned with more than $1 million in seed money for businesses like the Blackfeet Indian Writing Company, which he opened the next year.
The company’s 40,000-square-foot factory produced millions of pencils and pens a year, selling to corporate clients like Sears, Roebuck. Within five years it was turning a small profit. (The Blackfeet later sold the company, and it closed in the 1990s.)
Chief Old Person also led the founding of Blackfeet Community College, in 1974, and later supported the opening of a casino and the Blackfeet National Bank, both on the reservation.
More noteworthy than his business acumen, though, was his role as a living repository of the Blackfeet Nation’s heritage; he was one of the few people left who knew its stories and could pass on its traditions.
“He was such a profound person, who knew so much about our culture, our history and our community,” Karla Bird, the president of Blackfeet Community College, said in an interview. “He was our connection to our ancestral ways.”
Chief Old Person remained a determined proponent of the tribe’s interests in Washington. He said he was suspicious of the government, given its long track record of broken promises to American Indians.
“We begin to wonder,” he said at a 1971 congressional hearing, “if the Great White Father, the president of the United States, and the Interior Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies really meant what they were saying when they said they’d recognize Indian self-determination.”
Still, he held out hope for better treatment from Washington. In 1978, he led a study group commissioned by the Interior Department to consider creating a cabinet-level position covering Indian affairs. The group endorsed the idea, but the government never followed through.