BROWNING — Friday marked the official end of an era, as Blackfeet Tribe Chief Earl Old Person’s funeral was held. Chief Old Person was the longest-serving elected tribal official in the nation; he died last week at the age of 92. The funeral concluded a week of events to honor him.
He had been chief since 1978 and had served as a member of tribal council for over 60 years.
Dozens of people gathered inside Browning High School's gym to honor and remember the life of Chief Old Person. This was described as a historic day not just for the Blackfeet Tribe, but also for Montana and the nation.
After an opening prayer and an honor song, politicians, tribal members, and others talked about Chief Earl Old Person's legacy and shared stories about him.
“That's a saint, Earl Old Person. (He) prayed every day for us people. There wasn't a day that went by that he didn't pray for us. All the people, not just the Pikani,” Blackfeet Tribe Chairman Timothy Davis said.
“None of us will ever forget his unparalleled strength and character and dedication to service,” said Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte.
“He listened to my story, he listened to my hopes, my dreams. He sat there like Earl would do and just nodded his head. He took a moment to think and then he gave me good words of encouragement and he wrote me a letter. I put that letter of recommendation in every application I made to medical school. Long story short, I was accepted to medical school, finished my training, and I came back home to help my people,” recalled Ernest Gray, the Chief’s physician.
“As folks said earlier in the day, he would listen first before he spoke. That got me thinking over the last nine days or so about the kind of values that Earl personally exhibited. Values of dedication and vision and being resolute,” said Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
"Cindy and I express our deepest condolences in the passing of a great, tender-hearted warrior,” said a spokesperson for Montana U.S. Senator Steve Daines.
The Montana Historical Society provided a video of a 2002 KRTV interview with the chief:
When asked to describe himself, he spoke about his leadership: "Even before I became a leader, I worked with the elders and from that time I learned to follow after the things that I saw and observed of these elders."
As for who will be the next chief, that will be up to the chief’s family.
“The people took care of that, the people that put Earl in place, a lot of them no longer exist. They have passed on,” Blackfeet Tribe member Jay St. Goddard said.
The Chief’s family will decide if, when, and who they want to appoint as the next chief. Until then, the tribe will not have a chief.
"One word he wanted us to use was to go forward, be strong, try hard. we've still got to go forward. We're going to continue what he laid out for us,” St. Goddard said.
He added that Chief Old Person left a lot of history for the tribe to carry on.