BREAKING and PRESERVING ANCIENT TRADITIONS
Born in the Indian tribal lands of Grease Wood in the small community of Starr School in Montana. His parents were Native Americans of the Blackfoot tribe. His father was Juniper and his mother Molly Bear Medicine. He had many siblings.
It was a very happy but poor upbringing. Their home had no central heating or plumbing. His parents were very keen on all of their children having a decent education.
Every morning the first thing his parents said to their children was, “Iltahmiskinatoonii niipowaht iikaakiima.” This translates as, “Good morning, Get Up, Try hard.”
Only Blackfoot was spoken at home, so Earl did not get to try English until he went to school. He showed exceptional talent with music and dance. It is said he could hear a tune once and recreate it perfectly from his memory many years later. He also loved traditional stories from his tribe.
He was also an extremely accomplished horseman. “I never used a saddle in my life.”
He went to Browning High School in Montana. When he was just 7, his school basketball team got to their first ever state championships. They took Earl along as their mascot and at half time he put on a Blackfoot dance performance for the crowd.
Aged 9, he did a 6-week tour of New York City and Cleveland, doing his own show, raising money for a church to be built on his reservation. He raised enough single-handedly to rebuild the Holy Family Mission in Two Medicine.
When he was a teenager, he made it onto the school basketball team himself. He refused to cut his long-braided hair despite his coaches asking him to. Opponents taunted him but he said, “I had fun over it.”
In 1947 he travelled to Moisson in France with his local scout troop to participate in the 6th World Scout Jamboree. He was the only Native American there. He took his father’s tepee with him and set it up in the camp site.
By 1950 he had left school and was working in the tribe’s land office as a translator – few of the elderly Native Americans spoke English. At this point the tribe was still under threat of “termination” from the Indian Bureau (the organisation in charge of controlling the Native American population).
He fought hard to preserve Blackfoot native culture. At one point, “people didn’t even want to use their Indian names.” But he turned it around, creating pride in their culture.
In 1954 he became the youngest person ever elected to the Blackfoot Tribal Business Council. It took him 10 years (1964) to become Chair. Each ‘Chair’ did a 2-year term. Out of the next 22 terms, he was elected chair 16 times – until he retired in 2008.
He was President of the National Congress of American Indians between 1969 to 1971.
In the same year he was invited to go to Iran for the celebrations of 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. He was invited to give a speech, and have tea with the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. He noticed his audience were glazing over (which is unusual because he was an outstanding speaker) so he cut his speech short. He then invited the Shah to join him at the podium. The crowd went silent and were clearly very shocked.
But the Shah joined him – to great cheers. “He was very gracious.” Later Earl asked his interpreter, “Did I do anything wrong?” The reply was, “No, but you did something that has not been done in the previous 2,500 years when you asked the Shah to stand up”. It was a long-standing tradition that the Shah would not accept an invitation from anybody to stand.
He also fought successfully against an oil and gas development in the ‘Badger Two Medicine’ area that was sacred to the Blackfoot tribe.
He was voted ‘Outstanding Indian of the Year (1977)’ by the Chicago Indian Council.
In 1978 he was chosen to be ‘Honorary Chief of the Blackfoot Tribe’. John ‘Two Guns’ White Calf had been the most famous chief, dying in 1903. He was replaced by his own son James White Calf, who himself went on to live to be over 100 years old, dying in 1970. By tradition, the family of the dead chief chose the next Chief, although if they felt there was nobody suitable, the position remained vacant until they could find an appropriate candidate.
Consequently, the position was vacant for 8 years until Earl Old Person was selected.
He fought determinedly for the passing of the ‘American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978)’, which allowed freedom of worship and the right for Native Americans to access sites of their religious significance in the USA.
Also, in 1978, he attended the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta. He was introduced to Queen Elizabeth 2nd and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Earl was on hundreds of committees and a member of many organisations. He even created the ‘Blackfoot Bank’.
He refused to pledge allegiance to any political party, although he did accept an invitation to speak at the Republican National Convention in 1988.
He was also offered the status of Chief with the Kainai Tribe of Canada, and the Siksika Nation in the USA, for, “his work and dedication towards the indigenous people of North America.”
In 1993, Earl gave the first State of Indian Address to the Montana State Legislature. He was an excellent public speaker, regarded as just as good if he was speaking to Congress as to an 8-year old child.
He met every American President between Truman and Obama. In private he confessed Obama was his favourite (although he was very fond of Dwight D. Eisenhower too).
He himself never went to college, but he was a big advocate of higher education. A scholarship at the University of Montana ($5,000 per annum) was created in his name, allowing Blackfoot students to attend the university.
Therefore he was extremely proud when the University of Montana awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in ‘Human Letters’.
For 25 years he performed a Blackfoot War Song as part of the opening for the degree ceremony at the University of Montana. He also set aside $300,000 for an annual pow-wow at the university.
He was inducted into the Montana Indian Hall of Fame in 2007.
He retired in 2016. By this time Earl was the longest serving elected political officer in Montana (since 1964) and the longest elected tribal official in the USA.
In retirement he dedicated himself, using his amazing memory, to creating a Blackfoot archive, recording songs, music, dances and stories.
He died of cancer aged 92 in the Blackfoot Community Hospital.
His death was announced by his tribe. “The Blackfoot People have suffered a huge loss with the passing of Chief Old Person. A chapter in our history has come to a close.”
All Montana flags were flown at half-mast across the state.
Earl had a four-hour funeral. The Old Person family get to choose the next Chief as and when they find a suitable candidate.
Montana Senator Jon Tester said, “Chief Old Person was a fierce advocate for the Blackfoot Nation and all of the Indian country for his entire life, and the world is a better place because he was in it.”
Democratic State Representative Marvin Weatherwax said, “Earl is one of the heroes you wanted to say you knew in person. He is the reason for me going into politics.”
At the latest graduation ceremony at the University of Montana (the first without Earl for 26 years), the Rawhide Orchestra played a version of the war song he used to sing to open proceedings.
After his death, a highway in Montana was dedicated to him.
RIP – Respected Indigenous Person