Indian land trust abuse and the woman
who finally got US to pay up

The Christian Science Monitor
By Todd Wilkinson
December 10, 2009

This week's landmark settlement on behalf of as many as 500,000 native Americans, in which the US agreed to pay $3.4 billion to right a century of wrongs that cheated Indians out of the proceeds from their properties, took 13 years, countless lawyer hours, and the persistence of one Elouise Cobell.

A Blackfeet Indian who worked as a banker, Mrs. Cobell is the original plaintiff in a lawsuit that claimed the US government for generations failed to pay royalties, totaling tens of billions of dollars, for mineral and grazing leases on land it held in trust for native Americans and tribes.

The settlement falls short of what she and others say is owed native Americans, but it is nonetheless the biggest class-action Indian award ever against the government, according to Attorney General Eric Holder. Cobell has called her suit "the largest case of fiscal mismanagement on behalf of citizens in US history."

"Elouise represents the best in all of us. We're talking about a single individual from rural Browning, Montana, who took on the full power of the US government and won," her attorney, Dennis Gingold, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "It is a story of epic proportions, and in my 35 years as a lawyer, her demand for justice is unparalleled."

'She never backed down'

Cobell's pursuit of justice began during the Reagan administration, when her own audits of Indian Land Trusts turned up not only a gap in the amount of monies collected by the US Treasury but not dispersed to Indians, but also alleged sloppy bookkeeping and a corresponding cover-up. The case proceeded through the Clinton and Bush administrations, with a federal judge proposing a $455 million settlement last year.

"She endured intimidation of witnesses who were afraid to testify and egregious lying noted even by a district court judge, but she never backed down," says Mr Gingold. "This is a lesson in perseverance for all of us."

Cobell was often frustrated, first with the Clinton administration and then with the Bush Interior Department that managed the trust accounts, as the government sought to downplay the case as merely a bookkeeping problem.

Incredulous, US District Judge Royce Lamberth, who presided over a series of hearings, wrote scathing opinions, including one that said: "I have never seen more egregious misconduct by the federal government." He added: "Real justice for these Indians may still lie in the distant future; it may never come at all. This reality makes a statement about our society and our form of government that we should be unwilling to let stand."

The pivot point may have been candidate Barack Obama's campaign visit to the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. While there, he was symbolically adopted into the tribe by two elder members, Hartford and Mary Black Eagle, who spoke to him of the Cobell case.

After Obama became president, he instructed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to make Cobell's case a priority. Mr. Salazar alluded to Mr. Obama's sense of urgency Tuesday, in announcing the agreement.

"I heard from many in Indian Country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much," Obama said Tuesday in a statement. He called it "an important step towards reconciliation." The settlement must be approved by a federal judge and Congress.

The settlement benefits native people coast to coast. Part of the award will be distributed to individual tribal members or their heirs, and some $60 million will establish a fund to advance college education for native young people. The US would spend some $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land broken up in previous generations.

'Considerable vindication'

Cobell, now a senior citizen, is a former banker and a recipient of a coveted "Genius Award" of the MacArthur Foundation. She said Tuesday at the announcement in Washington that she believes the royalties withheld from native people can now be applied to investment that can rebuild lives and hope.

Unfortunately, she said, thousands of defendants who awaited restitution have died, and that was a factor in the decision to push for a settlement now. "My every sense is that this judgment probably falls far short of the true financial loss. At the same time, this is an important moment," says Charles Wilkinson, an expert on Indian law and senior professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder Law School. "The award is substantial, and it shows that when Indian people organize and bring their complaints to the government they can be heard. This isn't total justice, but there is considerable vindication here."

"We're obviously proud of her but we're glad it's over," says Cobell's son, Turk Cobell, who is a hospitality industry executive in Las Vegas. "My mother is tremendously relentless when it comes to doing what she believes is right. Maybe now she can finally enjoy a normal life again and get something she hasn't had: rest."