October 17, 2011; Source: Associated Press | For 15 years a Blackfeet woman named Elouise Cobell led a sometimes very lonely fight to get the U.S. Department of the Interior to account for the U.S. government having “misspent, lost or stolen billions of dollars [in Indian land royalties] meant for Native American land-trust account holders dating back to the 1880s.” During all this time, Cobell was repudiated and sometimes excoriated by Republican and Democratic administrations. She was confronted with a bipartisan effort of the leaders of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to deny and duck responsibility, much less provide an accounting of the monies that had been essentially stolen from Native American landholders.
This wasn’t a case of people lacking fair access to a federal program. It was a case of the federal government, whether through volition or ineptitude, essentially expropriating property from an entire population group.
In 2009, Cobell and her colleagues won a court case that resulted in a $3.4 billion settlement benefitting some 500,000 people. It was the largest class-action settlement ever. $1.4 billion will be paid to Indian account holders, another $2 billion will be used by the federal government to buy back lands from people who purchased (or simply grabbed) Indian lands from owners who might have sold because they didn’t know the royalty value or didn’t think the government would ever pay, and $60 million will go to a scholarship fund.
Critics inside and outside the government tried to insinuate that Cobell spent all that time aiming for her own self-enrichment. For those of us who knew her, this was a vicious calumny. The woman gave 15 years of her life to this case. She became an activist because she had seen and experienced poverty at the Blackfeet reservation in Montana that was due in part to the government’s combination of ineptitude and treachery.
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The Associated Press article on Cobell’s death included this notable quote from her: “Maybe one of these days, they won’t even think about me. They’ll just keep going and say, ‘This is because I did it.’ I never started this case with any intentions of being a hero. I just wanted this case to give justice to people that didn’t have it.”
If NPQ Newswire readers haven’t had a chance to read our several articles about Cobell (here and here and here and here and here and here), they might have heard about her work as the Blackfeet Nation’s treasurer for 13 years, during which the Blackfeet National Bank (now the Native American Bank), the first bank to be owned by a tribe, was established. Or they might know of her work in community development as the executive director of the Native American Community Development Corporation. Or they might recall that in 1997 Cobell received one of the “genius grants” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
This NPQ Newswire writer got to interview Elouise Cobell once and on another occasion shared the dais with her in a panel discussion on rural philanthropy. Those experiences with this wise, kind, gentle woman will always be remembered.—Rick Cohen