BILLINGS — Gordon Belcourt, executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council who worked to prevent suicide and curb alcohol abuse among American Indians, has died. He was 68.
Belcourt died Monday at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, his family said. They did not release a cause of death but said he had been ill for some time.
Belcourt “always remembered to put the needs of others before his own and what it felt like to be hungry, poor and marginalized within society,” daughter Annjeannette Belcourt told The Billings Gazette. “As a result, he lived a generous, thoughtful and compassionate life filled of hopes for health and wellness for Indian people everywhere.”
Gordon Belcourt had served as the tribal leaders council’s executive director since 1998 and is credited with building it through grant writing and his knowledge of organizational development from a single employee into a powerful advocate for Indian people throughout the region and the nation.
His determination increased after the murder of one of his eight children in Billings a dozen years ago, his family said.
“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.”
The tribal leaders council, under Belcourt’s leadership, received $5 million in 2009 to fight alcohol abuse, which he called a continuing and serious problem in American Indian communities.
In February, Belcourt took on the high rate of suicide among Native Americans. His own grandson had committed suicide.
“If I thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t be here,” Belcourt said at the time. “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.”
Belcourt grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, graduated from Browning High School and earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of California at Berkeley.
He was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, attended law school at the University of Montana and once served as president of Blackfeet Community College.
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.
“He really tried hard to do what was right for the people,” Salish Kootenai College President Joe McDonald told the Missoulian. “He always wanted to do what was right.”
Montana’s congressional delegation released statements praising Belcourt and his work.
“He leaves big shoes to fill, and he will be missed by all Montanans,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said.
“As an unwavering advocate for Native American families, I could always count on Gordon Belcourt for his advice and counsel,” Montana Sen. Max Baucus said in a statement. “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.”
A funeral mass will be held Friday at Little Flower Parish on the Blackfeet reservation.
In lieu of flowers, the family has set up The Gordon Belcourt Humanitarian Fund at First Interstate Bank in Billings. The money will be used to help Native people access health and educational opportunities.
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