Nicole Girten

BROWNING (Daily Montanan) — Delphine Old Person cried into Sen. Susan Webber’s shoulder following the unveiling of the Chief Earl Old Person Memorial Highway on Thursday.

A group including Arlen Edwards, the late Old Person’s grandson, played a “victory song” with drums prior to the unveiling of the sign as a dedication to the Browning legislator’s work to get the sign in place, with dozens of onlookers

Webber, a Democrat from Browning, said she felt “relief” seeing the sign unveiled, given the hurdles the bill to establish the sign overcame during the last legislative session — a topic broached by several speakers during the service.

Webber introduced the bill to install the memorial highway to honor Old Person, the longest-serving elected tribal official in the U.S., during the latest legislative session. However, the bill was tabled in committee by Republicans on the day it was heard, and in order for it to survive, Webber had to introduce a “blast” motion to get the bill to the Senate floor, where it eventually passed.

Republicans cited an unwritten rule that memorial highways be designated solely to fallen law enforcement as the reason the bill was tabled, a reasoning that Browning Democratic Rep. Tyson Running Wolf critiqued during his remarks on Thursday.

“We are totally surprised when it was tabled. They brought in new rules that were not really rules on the Senate side,” said Running Wolf, who carried the bill in the House. “I said, ‘That’s a bunch of baloney.’”

The bill was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, in April.

Running Wolf commended Webber for being “brave enough to step up there and push it through.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat running for reelection, also commented on the blast motion in his remarks at the event, commending Webber at the same time.

“She used a technique that I never saw in my eight years in the Montana Senate where she blasted a bill out of committee on the floor and the doggone thing actually passed,” Tester said.

Webber said she knew it was going to pass because she “lobbied like crazy.”

Tribal Public Health Specialist Cinda Ironmaker, who took photos with Webber following the unveiling, said the “no” votes “gave her the drive to push even harder.”

“I was so angry,” Webber said. “That was a fight.”

Chief Earl Old Person
Chief Earl Old Person

Tester said the highway was “a small symbol of appreciation to a great man who did great things not only for Blackfeet country, but for Native Americans and for this great country.”

The senator said he worked with Old Person on a number of projects, including helping to preserve the Badger-Two Medicine just outside Glacier National Park, the Cobell Land Settlement and the Blackfeet Water Settlement.

“He was somebody that, as my father would say, cut a wide swath,” Tester said. “He represented Native Americans all around this country and he did it in a way that garnered him respect wherever he went.”

There are two memorial signs on each side of the road beside Browning High School, as Webber said Old Person was a supporter of education. The County Fairgrounds are also named for Old Person’s Native American name, Charging Home.

Republican Montana Congressman. Ryan Zinke was also in attendance, with Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., in tow. The Blackfeet Reservation is within Zinke’s district.

“As a Navy Seal, I’ve always honored and respected the warrior class of the Blackfeet Nation,” Zinke said. “And warrior creed is more (than) about fighting; it’s about winning for your people.”

Old Person died in October 2021 at age 92 after a battle with cancer.

Speakers, including family and community members, recalled Old Person’s legacy, which included meeting every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, drinking tea with the Shah of Iran, and speaking at the 1988 Republican National Convention.

Kenny Scabby Robe, one of Old Person’s relatives, spoke of the family history and of how Old Person passed down Blackfeet language, traditions and cared for him.

“That’s what I cherish today,” he said.

Titus Bearchief Upham, Old Person’s pastor who sang at the prayer service, said he had known Old Person since he was very young, and that those who voted against the memorial highway didn’t understand his legacy.

“If they would have understood a little bit, it would have been no question,” he said. “Thankful to those that educated them.”