Throughout his life, Chief Earl Old Person of the Blackfeet Nation could be found in the Browning High School gym, always seated in the northwest corner of the bleachers and always in his blue, long-sleeved, buttoned shirt, cheering for his alma mater. But for his final trip into the gym, he was not in the stands. Instead, his coffin was placed directly on the court as mourners came to say goodbye.
Chief Old Person, the longest-serving tribally elected official in the United States, died Oct. 13 at 92 of cancer.
On Tuesday, the chief returned to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana — home to nearly 10,000 tribal members — from a funeral home 160 miles south, beginning a four-day mourning period that closed the small northern town of Browning for three processions: when the chief was brought to the tribal council chambers, when he was moved the following day to the high school gym and, on Friday, after the funeral, when his body was brought to his family plot.
As the hearse crossed the Rocky Mountains into Blackfeet Country, thousands of mourners gathered to welcome their chief home. Sixteen pallbearers guided the hearse behind the Blackfeet Honor Guard, a line of traditional singers and men on horseback.
The first procession was aired live on the radio as the emcee announced the names of family and the songs sung, many of which were chicken dance songs meant to honor his legacy on the powwow circuit. After each song, the emcee repeated a phrase the chief said many times: “You just keep getting gooder and gooder.”
A crowd, with many dressed in regalia and headdresses and others in jeans and sweatshirts, watched as the pallbearers carried the coffin into the tribal council chambers where the chief served the community for decades. Eighteen tepees were erected in the park adjacent to the building, glowing blue and red at night.
Born April 13, 1929, to Juniper and Molly (Bear Medicine) Old Person on his family land known as Grease Wood in Starr School, Montana, Earl Old Person was born into the last Blackfeet generation to speak Pikuni before English. Growing up, he was a translator for his elders, learning the traditions and history of the Blackfeet Nation that predated colonization.
He shared that history with the generations that followed him, teaching children traditional songs, giving eulogies and performing naming ceremonies. His nephew Harold Dusty Bull, said that even at 92, the chief could recite your family history, your ancestors, their Indian names, what they did and what societies (ceremony groups within the tribe) they belonged to.
“He was the last one with that depth of knowledge,” Dusty Bull said. “Nothing is going to be the same without Earl.”
In his final years, Chief Old Person would sit in a log cabin for hours in Browning, recording as many songs and stories as he could for future generations.
As a champion of causes for tribal nations, he met many world leaders, including 12 U.S. presidents, and he received numerous accolades. But for the Blackfeet Nation, Chief Old Person will be remembered as the heartbeat of its community.
“He had so many accomplishments, but his culture and people meant the most to him,” said Joe McKay, a member of the tribe who was close with the chief.
“We’ll never know how much Earl did for us because he would never talk about how much he does,” said Wilma Many White Horses, the chief’s first cousin.
The chief, who led the tribe for more than 60 years, attended nearly every high school athletic event in the town, sometimes driving hundreds of miles to neighboring reservations and cities to support its Native American athletes. In gratitude of that support, Browning High School dedicated the gymnasium to him in 2019.
During the funeral Friday, that gym filled with hundreds of people paying their respects. Dignitaries including tribal leaders, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Greg Gianforte, the state’s governor, each shared stories. The ceremony, which lasted more than four hours, concluded with his grandson Arlan Edwards using his grandfather’s drum to sing a traditional going home song.
Throughout the week of ceremonies, many spoke about how they will miss seeing the chief riding through town in his Chevrolet truck. Edwards and another grandson, Loren Croff, talked about what could not be seen as the chief drove. Tucked behind the passenger seat were two black sneakers belonging to his second wife, Doris. Those sneakers kept him company in every truck he drove for nearly 20 years. And on Friday, they sat next to him in his coffin for his final trip to the family plot in Grease Wood.