Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person, a former Scout who was the longest-serving elected tribal official in the country, died on Oct. 13 after a long battle with cancer. He was 92.
As chief of the Montana-based Blackfeet Nation, one of the 10 largest tribes in the U.S., Old Person advocated for the rights of the Blackfeet people in congressional hearings, meetings with heads of state and public rallies.
He was a skilled orator who spoke fervently for the rights of his tribe, rallying support in the face of what he saw as unacceptable inaction from the federal government.
Speaking out like that takes bravery, and in 2010, Old Person told the Great Falls Tribune that his confidence in front of a crowd first took root in BSA Troop 94 of Browning, Mont.
“That’s where I got my public speaking,” Old Person said. “I learned from that. I never write my speeches. I just take ’em from the heart.”
He said that Scouting is “something that gives you courage, gives you something to use.”
That courage was tested at the 1947 World Scout Jamboree, held in France. Of the 24,000-plus Scouts in attendance, Old Person was the lone American Indian, according to The New York Times.
Old Person’s Jamboree Scoutmaster was Francis X. Guardipee, an American Indian man who later received the Silver Antelope Award, says Gregg Holt, who was friends with Old Person since the mid-80s.
Old Person told the Great Falls Tribune that about 1,150 U.S. Scouts made the nine-day trip across the Atlantic Ocean on an Army boat for the event.
Once Old Person arrived and set up his tent for the week — a teepee he borrowed from his father — he soon became the most popular Scout at camp.
“That was the main attraction,” he told the Great Falls Tribune. “One lady came to me and said, ‘We used to think Rita Hayworth was popular, but you got her beat.’”
His jamboree fame became so great that he “got writer’s cramp signing autographs,” according to a caption in the Aug. 25, 1947, issue of Life magazine.
During the eulogy at Old Person’s memorial service on Friday in Browning, Scouting played a part, Holt says.
“It was mentioned several times how much Earl’s life was influenced by his experiences in Scouting and his participation in the 1947 World Jamboree,” Holt says. “Needless to say, it was a very moving experience.”
When Old Person returned from the Jamboree, he worked as an interpreter. In 1954, he ran for the Blackfeet tribal council, winning a seat and continuing to serve for the next 62 years.
As chairman of one of the nation’s largest tribes, Old Person quickly became an unofficial spokesman not just for the Blackfeet Nation but for the rights of all Native American tribes.
He continued to speak out about Scouting throughout his life, too. In 2011, then-BSA Chief Scout Executive Robert Mazzuca traveled to Montana to honor Old Person at a special ceremony.
After thanking Mazzuca for the honor, Old Person explained that being a Scout “wasn’t hard,” because the values of his Native American upbringing aligned perfectly with the values of Scouting.
As Old Person told the crowd, Scouting “has brought me to learn that there are many ways to help serve others.”