Bill Old Chief has a vision for the Blackfeet Nation, and it’s not the status quo.
“I believe that it is time for Indian people to rise up and take our rightful place,” he told a recent gathering of tribal leaders. “We have no place left to go. We do not have time to play games. We do not have time to kick back. Our time has come, and it’s time for us to speak up.”
Old Chief has been speaking up—forcefully and eloquently—for the past two years, ever since his meteoric rise from a political unknown to the powerful chairmanship of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the tribe’s highest ruling body. He’s been turning heads and ruffling some feathers ever since, but he clearly has no intention of turning down the heat.
“I as a leader can’t tolerate 69 percent unemployment,” he says emphatically. “I can’t tolerate higher diabetes rates. I can’t tolerate higher cancer rates. I can’t tolerate our people having no place to live. “ Old Chief, 43, is a rising star in the nation’s rank of American Indian leaders, and he and the other members of the Blackfeet council are staking new ground on nearly every front.
In recent months, the council has made headlines for creating a new “off-shore” depository for wealthy investors, challenging the hiring procedures of the U.S. Census Bureau, pushing to improve tribal-member access across the border between the United States and Canada, and fighting a General Services Administration ruling that allows non-Indian contractors to avoid paying tribal assessments while building a new U.S. Customs station north of Browning.
The council, under Old Chief’s guidance, is also taking on the National Park Service in a land dispute in adjacent Glacier National Park, and is challenging a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decree over environmental-impact requirements for oil and gas exploration. The tribe is standing up to the state on a variety of fronts, demanding that Indian people be treated as equals who can guide their own future.
“Indian people are not going to hide in a corner,” he says. “We’re taking our place in Montana.
“Change is not going to come from the federal government,” he explains. “I really believe if there’s going to be change, it has to come from us. I as a leader have to instill hope in our people.” Hope has been a standard theme in Old Chief’s life. He grew up poor and, in his words, “on the other side of the tracks” in Browning, the largest town on the 1.6-million-acre Blackfeet Reservation. He and his family were migrant fruit pickers, and they sometimes relied on welfare to make ends meet during the off-seasons. “We did the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ thing,” he says. “I grew up eating commodity cheese, swimming in a creek that had sucker worms in it. I know what it’s like to be discriminated against, to be called a dirty Indian. I know what it is to be hungry. I’ve had to push hard to get past the barriers.”
Instead of creating a delusional world where everything was rosy, Old Chief says he decided early on in his life that he would tell the truth, no matter how much it hurt.
“I’m not going to tell you a story,” he says. “I’m going to tell you the facts. We know what we’re doing is right and just. I’m not going to sit back and say everything is all right. If I offend you, it will be because of the facts.”
While the charismatic Old Chief may sound full of righteous bluster, he is not. In fact, he says his inherent shyness is probably the biggest impediment to what he’s trying to do—make outsiders understand Indian people and the many challenges they’re trying to overcome.
“In my experience he is congenial and candid and thoughtful,” says Gov. Marc Racicot, who has at times been at odds with Montana’s tribes. “He speaks from the heart and studies hard. Bill really cares about the people he serves.”
“I don’t lead people on,” Old Chief says. “I tell them they never have to read between the lines with me.”
Old Chief says he makes a special effort to reach out to non-Indians, in part because he wants to dispel three main myths: that Indians “get free homes, free education and a check once a month.” But perhaps more than anything, he wants other political leaders to listen to Indian concerns and respect native peoples and their sovereignty.
“You can’t hold people down because of the color of their skin,” he explains. “I have always gone after the underdog, to protect them.” Old Chief says he never planned on leading the Blackfeet Tribe, which has 15,163 members in all 50 states and a number of foreign countries. After a long career with the National Park Service, he quit his job a few years ago and jumped into politics. To his surprise, he won his first bid for office and was immediately elected chairman. He replaced Earl Old Person, who served 42 years on the council, 32 years of them as chairman. Still, Old Chief is modest about his accomplishments.
“The people have faith in me,” he says. “They chose me to speak up for them. I’ve promised to give the best that I have. I know I screw up. I know I’ll mess up, and I’ve told people that. This is all new to me. I started to crawl, but I’m not going to crawl all my life. Eventually, I’ll be running.”