Native American Activist Elouise Cobell Dies

National Public Radio
October 17, 2011,

Elouise Cobell, the Native American activist whose demand that the U.S. government account for money earned from Indian lands turned into one of the largest class action lawsuits ever settled, died on Sunday in Great Falls, Montana. She was 65.

Cobell, a member of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, came to national attention when she and four other Native Americans filed suit against the Interior Department, insisting the government explain why it mishandled billions of dollars held in trust for Native Americans. Some of the money came from Native American lands leased for grazing or oil and gas drilling purposes, according to the Native American Times.

Neither the Native American activists nor the government knew completely how much property Indians owned or what they were fully owed for its use, says the Washington Post, because the Interior Department failed to keep accurate reports. Cobell decided to take action as she realized how many people on the Blackfeet reservation alone may have been owed money and were in poverty.

Speaking to the AP, Cobell said she worked with two presidential administrations and with Congress before deciding to sue in 1996 because so little progress was being made to address the matter.

The lawsuit didn't lead to a quick action, either. After a federal judge urged a resolution to the matter, the Interior Department moved to settle the case in 2009. The agreement was ratified by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2010. The agreement called for a $3.4 billion dollar fund; among other goals, some money will be used to pay individual Indian money account holders and to create a scholarship fund for Native American students. The attorneys working on behalf of Cobell received $99 million dollars.

And the case isn't over. There are at least six separate appeals pending, according to the AP, even though a federal judge has also approved the settlement.

In 2009, Cobell said: "This is a bittersweet victory, at best, but it will mean a great deal to the tens of thousands of impoverished Indians entitled to share in its financial fruits, as well as to the Indian youth whose dreams for a better life — including the possibility of one day attending college — can now be realized."

Elouise Cobell, whose Indian name was Little Bird Woman, was also a banker and a rancher. She served as a trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian. And in 1997, she became a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient: she used her grant money to help pay for the lawsuit.

President Obama released a statement today praising Cobell's work, noting "Elouise helped to strengthen the government to government relationship with Indian Country.