MISSOULA – In the heart of the Payne Family Native American Center on the University of Montana campus, UM President Seth Bodnar announced on Monday that he directed $300,000 from a recent gift to establish an endowment to support UM’s Kyiyo Pow Wow. The new endowment is named after the late Chief Earl Old Person, one of the country’s most decorated and respected Native leaders who died in October 2021 at the age of 92.

Chief Earl Old Person, 92, passed away on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, after a long battle with cancer. Photo Credit: James McNeely

Bodnar said the endowment is intended to “sustain and improve” the student-run powwow. It honors Old Person as a longtime friend to UM and as a “symbol of the many ways our Kyiyo student group makes this campus better.”

“In reflecting on Chief Old Person’s impact not only for UM and our students, but on behalf of the state and the country, I can think of no greater way to continue his legacy than to provide our Kyiyo students with funds that will allow the powwow to continue, hopefully – for a very long time to come,” Bodnar said. “He gave of himself for his people, for his community, that culminated in an incredible life of impact. In many ways, so much of his spirit and what he advocated for embodies UM.”

Members of Old Person’s family attended the announcement celebration, with emotional testimonies surrounding his legacy and impact that extended far beyond the Blackfeet Nation. Old Person was a longtime fixture at the annual powwow with the Rawhide Singers, and he was a generational voice that promoted the benefits of education, of knowing one’s culture and championing students who sought to bring knowledge home to reservation communities.

Paul “Windy” Old Chief and his grandson sang songs during the ceremony and shared memories of Old Person. Old Chief is now the only singer of the original Rawhide Singers, who sang at every UM commencement ceremony for the past 20 years.

The Kyiyo Pow Wow is a living testament to the power of indigenous knowledge and tradition, as well as to the strength of Native American people, he said.

“He always said, know your history, know who you are,” Old Chief said. “He said our Indian language was worth knowing and preserving, and whenever he asked me to sing, I’d never turn him down or tell him ‘no.’ It’s still a very difficult time for us all, but I want to thank UM and the administration for carrying Earl’s memory and spirit and for our students, who can keep the powwow going. Earl never missed a powwow, and he never missed a graduation ceremony.”

Zachariah Rides at the Door, president of UM’s Kyiyo student group, addressed the audience in the Blackfeet language and said the endowment will support Native students and the longevity of the powwow.

“We are honored to receive this gift, and we thank you, President Bodnar, for your support for Native students and the powwow,” he said. “Putting on the powwow is always stressful when you’re a student and trying to fundraise for the event, and so these funds are greatly appreciated.”

A student group formed in the 1960s, UM’s annual Kyiyo Pow Wow Celebration is one of the oldest student-run powwows in the country. It aims to unify all Native Americans from across the nation, serving to both preserve and renew rich Native American traditions. The event provides a venue for dancing, singing and storytelling, representing a diversity of tribes and cultures.

At the end of the event, Arlan Edwards, grandson of Old Person, sang the Blackfeet Victory Song. He said the song was to celebrate a victory, and the last time Chief Old Person sang it, it was during the graduation of Browning High School.

“Let’s celebrate this victory today of our students, that’s what Earl would have wanted,” he said.

Bodnar closed the ceremony by thanking the family members of Old Person, who drove down from Browning for the event. Rides At The Door and Sierra Paske, vice president of Kyiyo, presented Bondar with a quilted blanket.

UM Kyiyo Student Club President Zachariah Rides At the Door and Kyiyo Vice President Seirra Paske present UM President Seth Bodnar with a blanket in UM's Payne Family Native American Center. Bodnar announced he was gifting the Kyiyo Powwow a $300,000 for an endowment in honor of the late Chief Earl Old Person. (Photo Credit: UM)

“To be clear,” Bodnar said, “this is just the beginning. And this blanket, that is a such a generous gesture, frankly belongs to the both of you, who are doing the work of making this campus better and for placing Indigenous culture at the center of our campus experience.”

Additional charitable donations are needed to grow the endowment so it will fully support annual pow wow expenses. The designation is made possible by a one-time philanthropic gift to the Excellence Fund, which provides resources that the UM president may use to address campus priorities. To contribute to the Chief Earl Old Person Kyiyo Pow Wow Fund, visit www.supportum.org/Earl-Old-Person-Kyiyo to make a gift online. Gifts may also be made by calling 800-443-2593 or mailing contributions to the University of Montana Foundation, noting the Chief Earl Old Person Kyiyo Pow Wow Fund on your check, at P.O. Box 7159, Missoula, MT. 59807-7159.