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Blackfeet Tribal Chief Earl Old Person dies at 92

Earl Old Person
Aaron Bolton
Blackfeet Nation
Chief Earl Old Person

The Blackfeet Tribe’s chief of over 40 years, Earl Old Person, died Wednesday at the age of 92 after a long battle with cancer. Old Person was both a longtime elected leader for the tribe and an advocate who worked hard to keep Blackfeet language and traditional culture alive.

If you attended any large gathering or event on the Blackfeet Reservation, you were likely to hear Chief Earl Old Person welcome tribal members and guests. That welcome was usually accompanied by a traditional song like the one he sang during grand entry during North American Indian Days in 2019.

“He had this kind of genius-type ability to hear Indian music and store that in his mind, and just hear it once. And he was a repository for that type of music,” said Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray.

Murray says Old Person wasn’t just a repository for traditional songs. Old Person was able to hold onto vast amounts of traditional Blackfeet knowledge through the 1950s and into the '70s when Murray says much of Blackfeet culture and language was lost.

“But Earl stayed close to it and he’s been an advocate for promoting the language and was able to retain them songs," Murray said. "So when the culture started coming back, they would go to him."

Murray says many of those stories and songs have been recorded and preserved.

Old Person became the chief of the tribe in 1978, but also had a storied career as a political leader for the tribe. He served on the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council for decades, starting in the 1950s. He became the president of the National Congress of American Indians from 1969 to 1971, and worked on national pieces of legislation like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which ensured access to traditional sites and the freedom to worship through ceremonies.

According to a press release from the tribe, Old Person also met every president since Dwight Eisenhower, as well as members of the British Royal Family and the Shah of Iran.

Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester issued a statement calling Old Person “a fierce advocate for Blackfeet Country and all of Indian Country.” Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte also issued statements mourning the death of Old Person.

His nephew Terry Tatsey remembers him as a dedicated family man who enjoyed the ranching lifestyle and had a deep love of horse culture. He says Old Person lived by three Blackfeet words he heard every morning growing up in the 1930s.

“They would all say in their language ‘IItahmiskinatoonii niipowaht iikakiima’, and what that means is good morning, get up, try hard,” he says.

Tatsey says that phrase reflects the legacy his uncle left behind.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.