BROWNING, Mont. (AP) — The Blackfeet Nation honored Chief Earl Old Person with a weeklong memorial, ending with a funeral service Friday in the Browning High School gym.
The gym smelled of sage, many women wore ribbon skirts and some men wore headdresses as they remembered the life of Old Person, who was the tribe's chief for 43 years. He died of cancer on Oct. 13 in Browning. He was 92.
Hundreds of people gathered in the gym as Old Person was remembered for his tireless advocacy for Native Americans and their culture, his strength of character and his humility. He served on the tribal council for over 60 years and was chairman of the tribal business council for more than 50 years.
He traveled the world, meeting Queen Elizabeth, the shah of Iran and every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, in advocating for the Blackfeet Tribe. He also worked to preserve the Blackfeet language, songs and culture.
But tribal members remember his constant presence on the reservation and his care and concern for the Blackfeet people. He would attend basketball games, community events and graduations, the Great Falls Tribune reports. He served as a mentor and even a father figure to tribal members.
Jay St. Goddard called the ceremony “a major historical event.”
“We're putting one of our last chiefs to rest,” he said. “It's not just a private event; it's not just a Montana event — this is a national event.”
Blackfeet Chairman Timothy Davis recalled that Old Person played basketball for Browning High School while wearing his hair in traditional braids, despite criticism from coaches and referees. Davis also recalled the story of when Old Person met the shah of Iran in 1971 and inadvertently violated a longstanding tradition in inviting the shah to stand next to him as he spoke.
Old Person did not know that Iranian diplomatic protocol dictated that the Iranian monarch never be made to stand at another's prompting. Old Person told the Great Falls Tribune during a 2008 interview that the shah responded very graciously.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said of Old Person: “He would listen first before he spoke, and it got me thinking over the last nine days or so about the kind of values Earl Old Person exhibited. Being a conservationist, considerate, reflective, tenacious, it’s a list far too long, but speaks of who this man was and of what his leadership still is."
Gov. Greg Gianforte said Old Person “was a tireless advocate, educator, storyteller. And none of us will ever forget his unparalleled strength of character and dedication to service.”
Former Gov. Steve Bullock called it an unexpected honor to speak at Old Person's service.
“I drove up not to talk but to listen because I learned in my time in public office that every time that I would see Chief Earl OId Person, if I would only listen, I'd walk out of there with my heart, my soul and my mind more full,” Bullock said.
Bullock called Old Person "a man with incredible humility," despite all his accomplishments and honors.
“The chief’s son said it best. … He said, ‘I spent a lot of time with my dad at the office, and he would say, ‘Everyone who walks through that door to see me … their challenges are my challenges, their issues are my issues, their problems are my problems.’’ … What he cared about wasn’t the honorifics, wasn’t the recognition, but it was the Blackfeet people,” Bullock said.
Tribal members sang and performed traditional songs in Old Person’s honor, and Paul Old Chief gifted Old Person’s drum and stick to one of the chief’s grandchildren.