Although sad to learn of his passing, former Salish Kootenai College President Joe McDonald couldn’t help but smile Tuesday as he remembered Gordon Belcourt, the executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council who died Monday in Billings.
“He really tried hard to do what was right for the people,” McDonald said. “He always wanted to do what was right.”
Belcourt, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and a former Missoula resident, was hailed as an unwavering advocate for Indian Country who took over the tribal leaders council 15 years ago and built it into a powerful regional and national voice for Native peoples.
His determination only increased, his family said, after the murder of one of his eight children in Billings a dozen years ago.
“The most devastating loss of his life was the loss of his daughter Elena Katie,” the family said in his obituary. “After her passing, he doubled his efforts to honor her life by helping to improve the quality of life for others. Forever a Blackfeet warrior, he decided he would never be defined by the problems he encountered.”
Belcourt was 68, and had been ill for some time when he died at St. Vincent Healthcare, according to his family.
Joe Durglo, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said Tuesday that Belcourt’s death will be felt across Montana and Wyoming, including on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
“Gordon’s work as an advocate for the Indian people extends back through many generations of leaders from the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people,” Durglo said. “He knew the issues as well as anyone.”
McDonald interacted with Belcourt often when Belcourt was president of Blackfeet Community College in Browning, but said his friend really made his mark after he was hired in 1998 as executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.
“I think that’s where he really found his niche,” McDonald said.
Montana’s two U.S. senators said they depended on Belcourt for advice and counsel on issues important to Indians, including the creation of the Tribal Law and Order Act and permanent reauthorization of the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act.
“Gordon could always be counted on to use common sense to get to the heart of the issue and find a solution,” Jon Tester said. “He leaves big shoes to fill.”
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Max Baucus called him a “wise and trusted leader,” adding, “Gordon was a true Blackfeet warrior who fought to improve the lives of folks across Indian Country. It was an honor to call Gordon a friend.”
“He always remembered to put the needs of others before his own,” his family said in his obituary, “and what it felt like to be hungry, poor and marginalized within society.”
The oldest of nine children, Belcourt was born in the winter of 1945 and grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation. He was given the name “Meekskimeeksskumapi,” or “Mixed Iron Boy,” in remembrance of World War II and the battle wreckage his uncle, Paul Home Gun Jr., observed after returning from five years of combat.
Belcourt was valedictorian of his Browning High School graduating class, but never considered continuing his education until, his family says, his high school principal “took him aside and informed him he would be going to college.”
Belcourt received a full scholarship to the University of Santa Clara in California, where he also entered the ROTC program and became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
He initially arrived in Missoula to attend law school at the University of Montana, where he met his wife of 43 years, Cheryl.
Instead of getting his law degree, however, Belcourt went back to California to earn a master’s in public health from the University of California at Berkeley before returning home to Montana, where he lived and worked on the Blackfeet Reservation and in Missoula before moving to Billings.
In 2003, UC-Berkeley’s School of Public Health named Belcourt one of its Public Health Heroes for his work on behalf of Native health care. The University of Montana awarded Belcourt an honorary doctorate in 2007.
Survivors include his wife, Cheryl. Their daughter Elena was 21 when she was shot to death by a Lodge Grass man in Billings in 2001 after rejecting his sexual advances.
The Belcourts had seven more children together: Sol, Paul Thunder, Annjeanette Elise, Jaime Ruth, Ben David, Alex Anson and Sienna Noel.
A rosary is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Starr School Gym on the Blackfeet Reservation. Belcourt’s funeral is Friday at 10 a.m. at the Little Flower Parish in Browning.