Earl Old Person, the chief of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana and former chairman of the tribal business council, has died of cancer. He was 92.
Old Person died Wednesday at Blackfeet Community Hospital “after a long battle with cancer,” according to a post on the Facebook page of the Blackfeet Nation/Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.
“The Blackfeet People have suffered a huge loss today with the passing of Chief Old Person,” the tribe said in a statement Wednesday. “A chapter in our history has come to a close.”
Old Person was elected to the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council in 1954 and served for over 60 years. He was chairman of the business council for over 50 years, the tribe said, making him the longest serving elected tribal official in the country.
In 1978, the family of the late Jim White Calf bestowed the hereditary, lifetime chieftainship to Old Person, tribal officials said.
Old Person met many dignitaries including every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower, the British Royal Family, the Shah of Iran and other world leaders, the tribe said.
In 1971, Old Person was invited to Tehran, Iran, to attend ceremonies celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the establishment of the Persian Empire.
Old Person told the Great Falls Tribune that he was invited to have high tea with the shah.
“So I put on my costume and went,” Old Person said in a 2008 interview. “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.”
Old Person did not know that Irian diplomatic protocol dictated that the Iranian monarch never be made to stand at another's prompting.
“He responded very graciously,” said Old Person, who said he later asked the interpreter if he had done anything wrong.
“No,” Old Person said 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 worked to preserve the tribal language and traditions and fought to block oil and gas development in the Badger-Two Medicine area, south of the Blackfeet Reservation and sacred to the tribe.
“This is going to be a big void that we all have to step up and try to fill,” said Democratic state Rep. Marvin Weatherwax of Browning. “He's been such an inspiration for a lot of us, especially me. He's the reason I decided to get into politics.”
Weatherwax said Old Person is “one of the heroes you wanted to be able to say (that) you knew this person."
During his career, Old Person served as president of the National Congress of American Indians in the 1970s, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana in 1994 and was awarded the Jeanette Rankin Civil Liberties Award by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. He was inducted into the Montana Indian Hall of Fame in 2007 and in 2020, the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls gave Old Person its Western Heritage Award.
Montana’s political leaders mourned Old Person’s death.
“Chief Old Person leaves a lasting legacy with his love for people, unparalleled strength of character, dedication to service, and commitment to preserving cultural heritage,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement. "Chief Old Person dedicated his life as a tireless advocate, educator, storyteller, and song singer not only for the Blackfeet people, but also for our state and nation. His legacy will live on for many generations.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, in a social media post, said Old Person "was a great Montanan and a great American. My prayers are with his family, friends and the entire Blackfeet Nation. It was an honor to know him.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said he and his wife Sharla were mourning 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,” Tester said on Twitter.
Plans for memorial services are still pending, the tribe said.