The Montana state Capitol in Helena on the opening day of the 2023 legislative session on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
The late Chief Earl Old Person, the longest-serving elected tribal official in the U.S., may be honored with a highway designation on the Blackfeet Reservation, as proposed in a bill heard Thursday.
Senate Bill 120 would designate U.S. Highway 89 from its intersection with Highway 2, just southeast of Browning, to the Canadian border “Chief Earl Old Person memorial highway.”
Old Person died in October of 2021 at 92 years old after a battle with cancer.
Bill sponsor Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, told the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee on Thursday the bill was requested by the 17,000 members of the Blackfeet Indian Nation of Montana. Webber said the family requested the road that went toward the high school because he was a “big fan and supporter of the Blackfeet children of our reservation.”
Webber spoke to the legacy and impact Old Person had both locally and on the international stage. She said Old Person met with every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, drank tea with the Shah of Iran and spoke at the 1988 Republican National Convention.
“He’s probably the only Blackfeet that’s a Republican,” Webber said, chuckling in the room. She later joked that at his funeral service, the only two Republicans in the gym were Gov. Greg Gianforte and Old Person. She said he was proud to be a Montanan.
Webber said that Old Person was an advocate for education and inspired her own education. Even though he had a high school diploma, Webber said he held an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana, was awarded the Jeannette Rankin Civil Liberties Award, and was the first recipient of the Christine Miller Memorial Award for Excellence in Native American Studies from the University of Lethbridge. In 1991, UM endowed a $5,000 scholarship in his name to Blackfeet students.
Sharon KickingWoman, with the ACLU of Montana, said that Old Person was a fixture in the community.
“He was always unabashedly proud to be Blackfeet, whether that was proudly wearing his braids when he played basketball for the Browning Indians, or setting up a teepee in Paris,” she said. “He was not ashamed of who he was, despite living in a world that demanded the opposite.”
Patrick Yawakie spoke on behalf of the Blackfeet Tribe and said the highway would bring the tribe recognition locally and internationally “because of all the many tourists who traveled throughout the homelands of Earl Old Person and the Blackfeet Nation.”
Kevin KickingWoman sang Old Person’s chieftain song and Arlen Edwards, Old Person’s grandson, sang a warrior song in closing their comments before the committee.
Webber said the music was meant not to honor Old Person, but the committee.
According to the fiscal note for the bill, each sign will cost just more than $2,200 each to install, including labor, materials and installation.
The committee did not immediately take executive action on the bill.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note the committee did not take immediate executive action.
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