Earl Old Person
Earl Old Person (Blackfeet names Stu Sapoo, "Cold Wind", and Ahka Pa Ka Pee, "Charging Home"; April 15, 1929 – October 13, 2021) was an American Indian political leader and the honorary lifetime chief of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, United States.
Earl Old Person
Stu Sapoo, Ahka Pa Ka Pee
|Born||April 15, 1929|
|Died||October 13, 2021 (aged 92)|
|Known for||Honorary lifetime Chief of the Blackfeet Nation|
Born on April 15, 1929, in an area of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Browning, Montana, Earl Old Person was a full-blooded member of the Blackfeet tribe, the son of Juniper and Molly Old Person. He was raised along with many siblings on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He went to elementary school in the community of Starr School, Montana, and graduated in 1947 from Browning High School in Browning. His childhood home lacked central heat and indoor plumbing, but he credited his success in life to his parents, who continually encouraged him to try hard and to excel in school. He was raised in a traditional manner, speaking the Blackfoot language as his first language, only learning English when he reached elementary school. He learned many traditional Blackfeet stories, songs, and dances, his memory helping preserve the Blackfeet culture decades later. "He had this, kind of, genius-type ability to hear Indian music and store that in his mind, and just hear it once."
His family said that each day his parents greeted their children with the words "IItahmiskinatoonii niipowaht iikakiima", meaning "good morning, get up, try hard". His childhood existed within what remained of the horse culture of the Blackfeet people. "I grew up on horseback; always bareback, I never used a saddle. I spent a lot of time around livestock."
His musical skill and dancing ability led to public performances. In 1936, when he was only seven years old, the Browning High School basketball team earned its first trip to the state tournament in Great Falls and Old Person performed at halftime. At age nine, he traveled to Cleveland and New York City for six weeks, where he performed traditional Blackfeet song and dance at schools, colleges and civic organizations as part of an effort to raise funds to build a new church on the reservation.
As a teenager, he played basketball for Browning High School, keeping his long braids in spite of pushback from his coaches. He said of the experience, "I had fun over it." Another highlight of his teen years was a 1947 trip to Moisson, France to attend the 6th World Scout Jamboree, where out of over 24,000 participants, he was the only Native American in attendance. He brought his father's tepee and set it up as his campsite.
In 1950, Old Person got a job in the tribe's land office, where one of his jobs was to be an interpreter for Blackfeet people who did not understand or speak English. At the time, only about one-fifth of the Blackfeet tribal members were considered full-blooded, and the tribe, like many others, was viewed as a candidate for termination.
It is important to note that in our Indian language the only translation for termination is to "wipe out" or "kill off"... how can we plan our future when the Indian Bureau threatens to wipe us out as a race? It is like trying to cook a meal in your tipi when someone is standing outside trying to burn the tipi down.— Earl Old Person, 1960, speaking for the National Congress of American Indians against US plans for tribal termination.
Old Person was encouraged by tribal elders to enter politics, and was elected to his first term as a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council in 1954, the youngest person ever elected to the post. He was first elected tribal chairman in 1964 and served as chair for 16 of the subsequent 22 two-year terms between 1964 to 2008. He continued as a member of the tribal council until he retired in 2016, serving in elected office longer than any other elected official in Montana history. He was also the longest-serving elected tribal official in America.
In July 1978, Old Person was appointed honorary lifetime Chief of the Blackfeet Nation. He considered this the greatest honor ever bestowed upon him. The last principal chief of the Blackfeet Nation, White Calf, had died in Washington, D.C. in 1903. His son, James White Calf, born about 1858, succeeded to the title and lived to be well over 100. Upon his death, the family of James White Calf formally bestowed the tribal chieftainship upon Old Person. His advocacy included promoting legislation that included the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which protected access to traditional Native sites and religious freedom. He also was inducted into the Kainai Chieftainship in Canada.
Old Person was president of the National Congress of American Indians from 1969 to 1971. The organization formed in 1944 in part to combat the U.S. government's termination and assimilation policies of the time. Among his accomplishments, he served on a committee that founded the nation's first tribally owned bank. He also was a member of a significant number of civic and governmental organizations, including president of the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest and was named Outstanding Indian of the Year in 1977 by the Chicago Indian Council. In 1993, Old Person delivered the first-ever State of the Indian Nation address to the Montana Legislature.
In the course of his career, he met every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He was invited by Queen Elizabeth to attend the 1978 Commonwealth Games, where he met with the British royal family and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He also traveled to Tehran in 1971 as part of a celebration of the 2,500-year history of the Persian Empire. There, he inadvertently broke a 1,000-year tradition when he gave a speech and asked the Shah of Iran to stand up.
All of these presidents that we come under, I always say they mean well, but sometimes they get trapped.— Earl Old Person, 2020
Though he never attended college, Old Person promoted higher education and, in 1991, the University of Montana endowed a scholarship in his name for Blackfeet students. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1994 from the University of Montana in Humane Letters. In 1998, he was awarded the Jeannette Rankin Civil Liberties Award by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. In 1999, he was the first person awarded the University of Lethbridge's Christine Miller Memorial Award for Excellence in Native American Studies. In 2007, he was inducted into the Montana Indian Hall of Fame.
In retirement, Old Person began an Archives Project to preserve Blackfeet Tribal Governmental documents. He also worked to preserve Blackfeet History and Culture to teach young members about their ancestors through his leadership of the Charging Home Society for Pikuni Education and Cultural Preservation Program.
Old Person worked to preserve the culture and language of the Blackfeet nation. Not only was he a musician and a native speaker of the Blackfeet language, he also remembered many traditions during a time when much knowledge was lost. John Murray, the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, explained, "Earl stayed close to it and he's been an advocate for promoting the language and was able to retain them songs. So when the culture started coming back, they would go to him…he was a repository for that type of music."
On October 13, 2021, Old Person died from cancer in Browning at the age of 92. US Senator Jon Tester stated, "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.”
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- William L. Bryan, Montana's Indians: yesterday and today, Farcountry Press, 1996, p.66 ISBN 1-56037-064-5
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- Murray, David (July 16, 2015). "Old Person: A legacy for the ages". Great Falls Tribune. Retrieved October 16, 2021.
- "1947 World Jamboree". www.scoutmuseumkingston.ca. Retrieved October 17, 2021.
- Spitzer, Allen (December 1950). "Social Disorganization among the Montana Blackfeet". The American Catholic Sociological Review. 11 (4): 218. Retrieved October 16, 2021.
- Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, p.371
- "Longtime Blackfoot chair Earl Old Person ousted in elections" Archived November 26, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, News From Indian Country, ICC, Inc, July 2008
- "Indian Warrior Dead" (PDF). New York Times. January 31, 1903. Retrieved October 16, 2021.
- Hungrywolf, Adolf (2006). The Blackfoot papers. Skookumchuck, B.C.: Good Medicine Cultural Foundation. pp. 1408–1409. ISBN 9780920698860. Retrieved October 16, 2021.
- Tribune Staff. "125 Montana Newsmakers: Earl Old Person". Great Falls Tribune. Archived from the original on January 11, 2012. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
- "Longtime Chief & Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe passes away at 92 – Blackfeet Nation/Blackfeet Tribal Business Council". www.facebook.com. Retrieved October 14, 2021.
- Earl Old Person Archived October 11, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, The Institute for Tribal Government, Portland State University, Retrieved May 12, 2009
- "Earl Old Person inducted into Montana Indian Hall of Fame", Golden Triangle News, July 3, 2007
- "Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person dies at 92". Archived from the original on October 14, 2021. Retrieved October 14, 2021.
- Drake, Phil (October 13, 2021). "Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person dies at 92". Helena Independent Record.