Blackfeet chief seeking museum for pictures, papers, culture

By Eric Newhouse
Browning, Montana (AP) 4-08

Half a century of leading the Blackfeet Nation has left Earl Old Person with more trophies than he knows what to do with.

Now he’s shopping for a museum to house and display them.

Old Person’s is more than just the ceremonial headdresses and the other artifacts, the pictures with all the recent presidents of the United States and the personal gifts from world leaders such as the Shah of Iran.

It’s the Blackfeet culture that Old Person, who will be 79 in May, wants to preserve.

“I know most of our sacred ceremonial songs, and there are also the society songs that are not religious, but ought to be preserved,” said the chief of the Blackfeet Nation. “And I know quite a few of our Blackfeet Sun Dance songs.

“I’d like to show people how these ceremonies are put on and what they mean,” he said.

Several years ago, Old Person watched as the late George and Molly Kicking Woman, then holders of a thunder medicine bundle, struggled to teach the elaborate daylong ceremony of opening the bundle each spring to a new bundle-holder. George Kicking Woman was urged to videotape the ceremony for safekeeping but declined to do so.

Old Person is more concerned about preserving the culture.

“I started making some tapes once, singing the songs and explaining what they were all about,” he said. “I’d like to make a whole series of the tapes so our young people could watch them and learn.”

Bill Farr, a history professor at the University of Montana and the associate director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, encouraged the project.

“The songs have always had a particular appeal for Earl, and his command of the songs of his Blackfeet Reservation is without parallel,” he said. “It would be wonderful if he could do them.

“But it’s also wonderful that while he knows the songs, he has a certain distance from them,” Farr said. “It’s more important for him to preserve them than to protect them.” Lifetime of leadership

Old Person has been a leader of the Blackfeet Nation since 1954, when he was first elected to the business council. With a few exceptions, he’s served continuously since, most often as chairman.

Old Person has met every president since Harry Truman, and participated in most of their inaugurations.

As an ambassador of the Blackfeet Nation, he was invited to Tehran in 1971 by the Shah of Iran to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire.

“I was asked to have high tea with the shah so I put on my costume and went,” he said. “He asked me to give a small talk so I stood up and asked the shah to join me. He stood up beside me and I started to speak, but I could see people smiling and I began to get worried so I cut my speech short.

“He responded very graciously,” Old Person said. “Later, I asked the interpreter if I had done something wrong and he said, ‘No, nothing wrong, but you did do something that has never been done in the previous 2,500 years when you asked the shah to stand up.”

In 1978, the family of Chief Two Guns White Calf bestowed the tribal chieftainship on Old Person, which is a lifetime position. A museum is needed

Old Person has been working with the tribe on renovating a small cabin behind the Museum of the Plains Indian to serve as his museum.

“We’ll outgrow that pretty quickly,” said tribal archivist Marilyn Parsons.

University of Montana President George Dennison has reportedly been lobbying to have some of Old Person’s papers donated to the university.

“They’ve talked, not frequently but periodically, about the possibility of Earl’s papers and so on coming to the University of Montana,” Farr said.

“We have a couple of important collections from the Blackfeet reservation, so it would augment those collections,” he added. “It wouldn’t just be a freestanding collection.”

But Old Person believes that some of the historical archives should be available to tribal members.

“We have had three claims against the U.S. government and those documents have been returned to us,” he said. “Some of the newer council members don’t understand the value of those documents but they’re the history of the Blackfeet people, so it’s important to house them properly.”

The security of historical documents is important, Farr said.

“Over the years, there have been significant tribal changes and some of those documents just acquire legs and walk off,” he said, promising that UM will provide better security if any of the documents are ever housed there.

“The pitch I made to Earl on behalf of the university is that given our ability to scan almost anything, the original documents are no longer that critical,” he said. “A copy is almost as good as the original in terms of historical and cultural information.

“So it’s not as critical where the original is housed as it is that they be adequately housed and protected,” said Farr.

Old Person said he’s continuing discussions with the university regarding the papers, but he’s also exploring options to keep the collection in Browning.