Plaintiff for the Past

The New York Times
October 17, 2011

Elouise Cobell was soft-spoken, but her politeness and sense of propriety took nothing away from her tenacity. Ms. Cobell, who died on Sunday at the age of 65, was a cattle rancher, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and a determined advocate for nearly forgotten rights of American Indians.

I would like to have met her where she surely felt most at home — on the Montana grasslands of the Blackfeet Nation Reservation. The few times we did meet, here in New York City, Ms. Cobell talked about the suit she filed in 1996 against the Interior Department. It was an attempt to force the federal government to account for revenues from mineral leases and other sources on lands that it had long held in trust on behalf of at least 300,000 American Indians. Some of the individual trusts dated back to the 1880s, and many of the records that might have tallied the exact amounts owed were lost or destroyed by the government, some accidentally and some on purpose.

Cobell v. Salazar was settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion. It was far less than the sums that are estimated to have passed into government hands from those trusts, but the moral victory was complete. Washington had abandoned those Indian trusts as a farrago of forgotten obligations. One of the most important things Ms. Cobell won in federal court was the right to an accounting as complete as the incomplete trust records would allow — an acknowledgement that the government’s obligation to individual trust holders was intact.

Putting money in the hands of the descendants of former trust holders is a partial redressing of history. But it does not wipe out the injustice. Elouise Cobell was able to see in a past that Washington forgot a way to begin to rebalance relations between American Indians and the federal government. She restored the past to memory, spoke eloquently on its behalf and so made a different future possible.