The leader who never shied from discussing the challenges plaguing Indian Country — including suicide and alcoholism — has died.
Gordon Belcourt was 68.
He died of natural causes about 7 a.m. Monday at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings.
As he grew sick, Annjeannette, or “Annie,” one of his daughters, said Belcourt “approached illness with unparalleled courage and dignity.”
Her father “always remembered to put the needs of others before his own and what it felt like to be hungry, poor, and marginalized within society," Annie Belcourt said. "As a result, he lived a generous, thoughtful, and compassionate life filled of hopes for health and wellness for Indian people everywhere.”
Belcourt’s traditional Blackfeet name, Mixed Iron Boy, leaves a legacy of strength, courage, perseverance, creativity, compassion and love, his daughter said.
Belcourt came to public prominence while serving as executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council from 1998 to the present. He is credited with building the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council into a powerful voice for Indian people throughout the region and across the nation.
In February, Belcourt took center stage to discuss the rampant rate of suicide among Native Americans. It was not enough for him to give the issue lip service. He sought solutions.
“If I thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t be here,” Belcourt said of his efforts to reduce the suicide rate. His own grandson had committed suicide. “I know what it means to have half of your heart ripped out. It’s created a whole sense of urgency and awareness to me.”
In 2009, the Tribal Leaders Council, under Belcourt’s leadership, received $5 million to curb alcohol abuse among American Indians. He said alcohol abuse is a “continuing and serious problem" in American Indian communities.
“Part of the problem is people are using alcohol and drugs to escape,” Belcourt said at the time.
Candor was a signature trait.
One of his proudest accomplishments was building the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council organization from the ground up with one employee. He tapped into his knowledge of grant writing and organizational development to create an institution that provided powerful advocacy for Indian people. He worked tirelessly to transform the organization to a place of advocacy and power.
In addition to serving as executive director of the Tribal Leaders Council, Belcourt helped establish a regional Tribal Institutional Review Board to better protect the rights of Native Americans and pursued numerous initiatives aiming to improve the quality of life in Indian Country.
“Mr. Belcourt has dedicated his life to improving the lives of Indian people he served," said Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the Billings Area Indian Health Service. "He has worked diligently with Indian Health Service for years. It was an honor to work with him and we will miss his expertise and wisdom with his passing."
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., referred to Belcourt as a tremendous leader and advocate for Indian Country.
“A trusted and experienced voice, Gordon could always be counted on to use common-sense to get to the heart of the issue and find a solution,” Tester said in a statement. "He leaves big shoes to fill, and he will be missed by all Montanans.”
Tester worked with Belcourt on numerous issues to improve Indian Country, including infrastructure projects, permanently reauthorizing the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, and creating the Tribal Law and Order Act.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also issued a statement, calling Belcourt an unwavering advocate for Native American families.
“I could always count on Gordon Belcourt for his advice and counsel,” Baucus said. “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 and his leadership will be greatly missed. Our hearts go out to Cheryl and the entire Belcourt family as Montana mourns the loss of a wise and trusted leader."
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel said Belcourt's death will leave a tremendous void in the city, county, state and region.
“He was loyal, dedicated, likable, honest and hardworking,” Hanel said.
U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said “Gordon’s dedication and leadership has been important to Montana and to our tribal communities."
Belcourt grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, graduated from Browning High School, and earned a master’s degree in public health at the University of California at Berkeley before returning to Montana to raise his family. Belcourt was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He attended law school at the University of Montana and also served as president of the Blackfeet Community College.
He was honored by the State of California and the University of California Berkeley with the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an alumnus as a Public Health Hero. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Montana in 2007 for his public service and professional dedication to improving Native American health and wellness.
Rosary is set for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Starr School Gymnasium near Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation. Funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Little Flower Parish on the reservation. Burial will be at Belcourt Family Cemetery on private land in Upper Cut Bank Creek.
In lieu of flowers, the family has set up The Gordon Belcourt Humanitarian Fund at First Interstate Bank, 730 Main St., Billings, MT 59105. The money will be used to help Native people access health and educational opportunities.
Further funeral arrangements are pending with Pondera Funeral Home in Conrad.