February 17, 2010; KECI (Channel 13, Missoula, MT)

We have written with great admiration about Elouise Cobell several times in the Cohen Report here and here and here and in the Daily Yonder. There is no better model of nonprofit advocacy than Eloise Cobell’s leadership in the long-running litigation against several different administrations of the U.S. Department of the Interior over the federal government’s historic misadministration (or worse) of Indian lands and the billions in mineral royalties the Indians were owed.  We have also noted that the reluctance of foundations to provide support to this kind of difficult, tendentious litigation was emblematic of philanthropy’s generic problems with supporting really tough but importance public policy advocacy. There were many lonely times for Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet woman from Browning, Montana, and her allies over the decades, especially when she was offered paltry settlement amounts compared to what the plaintiffs had documented that they were owed. Her persistence paid off this past December when the federal government agreed to settle the litigation, not for the $455 million that had previously been offered in August of 2008, but for $3.4 billion. Entirely consistent with her approach over the years, Cobell is now writing an “Ask Elouise” column (letters can be addressed to Ask Elouise) so that people can get answers, or at least as much of an answer as she can give, about this complex litigation and settlement. But at least one observer, obviously admiring of Cobell’s impressive community organizing skills, warns that the history of the federal government’s pathetic, dishonest administration of the Indian land trust funds suggests that there’s a “confederacy of thieves” in charge at Interior, a federal agency perhaps incapable of “turn(ing) a new leaf.” Cobell estimates that the Blackfeet Reservation Development Fund (BRDF), which largely paid for the litigation along with money Cobell put in out of her own pocket, ran unreimbursed expense in the litigation of as much as $15 million. Let’s hope that the foundation world realizes that it might have been missing in action during most of Cobell v. Babbitt, Cobell v. Norton, Cobell v. Kempthorne, and Cobell v. Salazar, it has a chance for some redemption if it steps up to provide the necessary funding for seeing the December settlement through to completion and implementation.—Rick Cohen