Elouise Cobell, a Native American leader
who took on Washington and won

The Washington Post
October 17, 2011

A great-granddaughter of legendary Blackfeet leader Mountain Chief, she was given the name Yellow Bird Woman at birth. Better known as Elouise Cobell, she died Sunday of cancer after a lifetime of almost unimaginable achievement for a girl born in the 1940s on a destitute reservation in Montana.

Ms. Cobell, 65 at her death, attended Montana State University and graduated from Great Falls Business College, ultimately making her living as an accountant and rancher. She worked for some 13 years as treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation, helped establish the first land trust in Indian country and the first Native American-owned national bank, and she was a leader of a nonprofit economic development group. She earned a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2007 and, this year, was awarded an honorary degree from Dartmouth College.

Yet she will be best remembered as the woman who took on the federal government in a marathon court battle to vindicate a century’s worth of exploitation.

As treasurer for the Blackfeet, Ms. Cobell came to suspect that the United States had shortchanged Native Americans billions of dollars by failing to pay appropriate royalties for the use of Indian lands held in trust. For nearly a decade, she pressed Washington for reforms to ensure fair compensation. When those efforts failed to produce results, Ms. Cobell became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in 1996.

Fourteen years, three presidential administrations and two contempt citations against Cabinet secretaries later, Ms. Cobell and hundreds of thousands of other Native Americans succeeded. Last year, President Obama signed into law a landmark $3.4 billion settlement.

On Monday, Mr. Obama mourned Ms. Cobell’s passing; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Montana’s senators also had words of praise. Last month, Ms. Cobell was nominated for a Congressional Gold Medal. The plaudits and awards are deserved, but the most fitting tribute for Ms. Cobell would be to continue her work. Or, as she put it last year in the Missoula Independent: “Make life better for our children.”