Earl Old Person, the oldest elected tribal representative in the United States who has met all presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 92 years old.
An advocate for the advancement of the Blackfeet people and the preservation of cultural traditions, Old Person was elected for his first term as a member of the Tribal Council in 1954, at the age of 25, and served as chief of the tribe Montana in 1978.
He died at Blackfeet Community Hospital, the tribe said Wednesday night: “A chapter in our history has ended,” the tribe said.
News of Old Person’s death spread across Big Sky State on Thursday, with Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines mourning his loss on Twitter.
“Chief Old Person has been a staunch supporter of the Blackfeet Nation and all of India his whole life, and the world is a better place because he was there. He will never be replaced, and we hold his loved ones and the Black feet in our hearts “, The tester said.
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Daines called the old person “a great Montanais and a great American” and added: “It was an honor to know him.”
In addition to fostering unity and tribal culture, Old Person was a leading advocate for access to higher education. Although he never attended college himself, Old Person holds an honorary doctorate in human letters from the University of Montana, which in 1991 endowed a $ 5,000 scholarship in his name for Blackfeet students attending Missoula University.
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 off having been influenced by it.”
Old Person was born on April 13, 1929 to a large family headed by parents Juniper and Milly (Bear Medicine) Old Person. He grew up learning traditional Blackfoot stories, songs and dances and spoke Blackfoot as his first language.
Old Person attributed much of his success to his parents. He told the USA TODAY Network’s Great Falls Tribune in July 2020 that his parents encouraged him to excel in school.
“We had no running water, no heating, but every morning they would wake us up and say in Indian: ‘Jump! Try!’,” He recalls. “These words helped us start our day off right.”
In 1936, the Browning High School basketball team won their first trip to the Great Falls State Tournament, where the then 7-year-old Old Person performed at halftime. Two years later, he traveled to Cleveland and New York, where he performed traditional Blackfeet songs and dances for schools, colleges and civic organizations.
Later, Old Person played basketball for Browning High School and wore her hair in long braids, in keeping with Native tradition.
“Some coaches didn’t like my braids,” Old Person told the Tribune in 2020. “But I never changed them. I had fun on them.”
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A year after graduating from Browning High School in 1947, Old Person was selected to attend the Sixth World Scout Jamboree north of Paris. He was the only Indian Boy Scout honored, and he set up his father’s tipi just north of Paris where he camped.
“Do not be afraid of each other, our young people should know this,” he told the Tribune in 2020. “Help each other. Lift each other up and if you can protect someone , do it. We have spiritual paths. There is someone looking down on us. “
Contribution: David Murray, Great Falls Tribune.
Nora Mabie covers Indigenous communities for the Great Falls Tribune. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook @NoraMabieJournalist or on Twitter @NoraMabie.