In Memory of Elouise Cobell


This blog began in late 2008 to recount my yearlong nationwide travels through Indian Country with documentary photographer Julia Dean. Those travels themselves were inspired by my publication earlier that year of “Aboriginal Sin,” in Tikkun. The article (scroll down for an image link on the right) presented an overview of the historic assault on indigenous peoples and culture in this nation, and it did so in the context of highlighting one of the outstanding examples that the assault was not merely old news, but ongoing. That example was the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund litigation, otherwise known as Cobell v. (choose a succession of secretaries of the interior over fourteen years and three presidential administrations). You can access a link to the litigation sites and histories on the horizontal menu bar above.

The settlement of the Cobell litigation, ending a program of wealth appropriation and fiscal malfeasance that dated to 1887, was a controversial, disappointing, yet still historic moment of accounting in the history of U.S. government abuse of Native America. Despite the efforts of many, one woman was the driving force and heroine of the effort, 1997 MacArthur Award winner Elouise Cobell, who died Sunday, October 16 of cancer. From Indian Country Today:

Elouise Cobell, 65, Walks On

The Indian woman who fought the U.S. government—and won—has lost her battle with cancer. Blackfeet Nation tribal citizen Elouise Cobell passed away Sunday evening at age 65 in Great Falls, Montana. Diagnosed with cancer last year, Cobell reportedly had surgery in April at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for what she described then as “a serious cancer.” The type of cancer has not been released.

Born one of eight children on the Blackfeet Reservation on Nov. 5, 1945, Cobell was a great granddaughter of Mountain Chief, a historical Indian leader of the West, and was given the Indian name “Yellow Bird Woman.” She became well-known throughout the United States after she filed a historic lawsuit in 1996 with four other Native Americans, alleging that the federal government had mismanaged the trust funds of more than 500,000 American Indians. After a long court battle, Cobell and her lawyers agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement in December 2009 that Congress ratified in December of 2010. President Barack Obama then signed the agreement into law, and U.S. Senior District Judge Thomas F. Hogan granted final approval this June. Final financial awards are pending appeal due to some controversial aspects of the settlement. As the appeals process continues, U.S. Department of the Interior officials have been holding consultation sessions with tribal leaders and citizens on aspects of the agreement.

When Obama met with Cobell in the Oval Office last December, he lauded her hard work, and upon her death, issued the following statement: “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Elouise Cobell yesterday. Elouise spoke out when she saw that the Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect on behalf of more than 300,000 of her fellow Native Americans. Because she did, I was able to sign into law a piece of legislation that finally provided a measure of justice to those who were affected.  That law also creates a scholarship fund to give more Native Americans access to higher education, and give tribes more control over their own lands.  Elouise helped to strengthen the government to government relationship with Indian Country, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family, and all those who mourn her passing.”

Despite the controversies related to that settlement, Cobell was well-respected in Indian country because of her willingness to take on a battle so huge. Many times throughout her case, the federal government placed formidable roadblocks in her way, but she pressed on. Her lead lawyer, Dennis Gingold, called her a “warrior woman” soon after the settlement was announced.

Keith Harper, another lawyer on the Cobell team, offered the following words soon after her passing: “Elouise was, in a word, remarkable, as were her contributions and unfailing courage.  She was the source of strength for the Cobell case and the reason why justice was finally obtained for half a million Native people in the form of the largest settlement of any suit against the United States in history. With any moment of progressive social change, there is always an iconic figure who will define that movement—the person who refused to get to the back of the bus.  For Indian people, for this importance cause, for this indelible change, that person was Elouise Cobell.  I will miss her deeply.”


In 1997, Cobell was awarded a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Fellows program, which she reportedly used to fund a portion of her lawsuit. In 2002, she received the International Women’s Forum award for “Women Who Make a Difference” in Mexico City. In 2004, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development presented gave her the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award. In 2005, she received a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. In 2007, she was awarded an AARP Impact Award. Earlier this year, she was named “Montana Citizen of the Year” by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.

Cobell was a banker, and one of the founders of the Native American Bank, based in Denver. Her experience in that field helped her understand the government’s mismanagement of trust funds, she said in interviews. She also served as executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp, the bank’s nonprofit affiliate; and she served for 13 years as treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation. She was the co-chair of Native American Bank NA, and she was a former trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Cobell, along with her husband, Alvin Cobell, also operated a working ranch that produced cattle and crops.

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