Remembering Montana warrior for justice

Billings Gazette
October 20, 2011

Rarely does the passing of a Montanan who never held public office outside her reservation elicit public condolences from the president, the governor and the entire congressional delegation.

Elouise Cobell was such a rare person. She spent the last 15 years of her life fighting for justice for American Indians as lead plaintiff in the trust account class action lawsuit against the federal government.

She explained how she became the voice and face of the class action in a guest opinion printed in The Gazette on Dec. 23, 2001.

”When I was a girl, the grownups on our reservation, the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana, complained about their troubles with the Individual Indian Trust. It was a mess.

”Royalties for allowing oil and gas, grazing and logging on Indian-owned lands were collected by the Interior Department. The funds were held by the Treasury Department, and then they were supposed to be paid to the Individual Indian Trust beneficiaries, including my parents. It had been that way since the 1880s.

”But the payments were erratic — $1 one time, $150 the next, or sometimes nothing — and no one knew what the amounts were based on. The Bureau of Indian Affairs agent had no explanation. Money was scarce on the reservation, but you were more likely to find a $100 bill on the street than to get a straight answer about the trust.

”In 1996, I and other Indian co-plaintiffs sued the Secretaries of Interior and Treasury to account for the money. I had left the reservation, attended college, returned home, become treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation and helped start the Blackfeet National Bank in Browning. I had an accounting background, and I kept chasing after answers about the mysteries of the trust, working my way up the chain of command.

”What I got from the BIA, Interior, Treasury and the Justice Department were patronizing pats on the head.”

The Cobell lawsuit has spanned three presidential administrations. A $3.4 billion settlement to be shared by an estimated 500,000 beneficiaries was approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last year.

But Cobell did not live to see the distribution of settlement money. She died of cancer at age 65 Sunday in hospice care in Great Falls. Class action payments are on hold until federal courts rule on an appeal by some trust account owners who object to the terms of the settlement.

Sadly, many others who would have benefited from the settlement died during the lengthy litigation period. And more will be lost before any see the money.

Montanans who value justice mourn Cobell’s passing. Our hearts and prayers are with her family and friends.

On the floor of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Sen. Max Baucus praised her for “helping close a chapter on a bitter history of broken promises.”

As Baucus observed: “Cobell fought for many who could not fight for themselves and the brought a voice to many who died before being able to see justice served.”

Elouise Cobell will long be remembered as the woman from Browning who fought Washington, D.C., bureacracy and won a victory for half a million other American Indians.