Hats off to a determined woman

By Betsy Marston

Elouise Cobell Day will be celebrated on November 5 in Montana, but many people in the West may not recognize her name.

They may not know the story of her almost 20-year struggle to win justice for Native Americans from the U.S. government, which for decades botched the management of natural resources owned by individual tribal members.

Yet 13 years ago, Blackfeet Tribal member and banker Elouise Cobell finally won a class-action lawsuit against the government, which settled the case by paying out $3.4 billion to Native American citizens and tribal nations.

The case was one of the largest class-action suits in U.S. history, and the presiding judge issued a blistering judgment against the Department of Interior. He called Interior a “dinosaur” agency that allowed “outright villainy” to persist.

And who was Elouise Cobell, the woman who brought the federal government to its knees? The great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief, a historic leader of the Blackfeet Nation, she was born on November 5, 1945. Her tribal name was Yellow Bird Woman. Seeing a need, she founded the Blackfeet National Bank, the first national bank owned by a tribe on a reservation, and made sure it offered education, ensuring that young people could become financially literate while also encouraging entrepreneurs.

Because she was a banker, she began looking into how the federal government kept failing its trust responsibilities, sending out checks only sporadically and without explanation. She asked basic questions of four different Interior Secretaries — Ken Salazar, Richard Kempthorne, Gale Norton and Bruce Babbitt. She wanted a clear accounting of how much money came into the Federal Government from tribal leases for mining, oil and gas, logging, minerals and grazing.

And what she particularly wanted to know was how royalties were determined for more than 300,000 tribal landowners.

Answers weren’t forthcoming. But she spotted a damning pattern: Native Americans had been systematically cheated for generations. What was worse, she said, was learning that they were still being cheated.

She could not even find any accounts existing before 1972, which led her to call the Interior Department’s management a “forensic mess.” But early on, when she confronted Interior staffers, she said she was told to go away “and learn how to read an account statement.”

Cobell may not have seemed like a firebrand, but she was stubborn. Finally, she told law students at Tufts University in 2010, she became enraged.

“People would come to the bank and tell me, ‘I could do this or that if I could get my money.’” But years passed, “and many people I fought for had passed away.”

At the beginning of what became her long campaign, Cobell said that when she first approached the Federal Government, she assumed she’d certainly “get somebody to listen.”

But writing letters got her nowhere. Traveling to Washington to meet with those in charge also failed, and one Interior Secretary, she said, refused to talk with her at all. After five tribes banded together in an effort to force Senate hearings, they, too, were stymied. Meanwhile, Indigenous people were still being cheated.

It was President Barack Obama and Congress that finally settled her class action suit in 2009, awarding $1.4 billion to the landowners and $1.7 billion to tribal nations, which still uses some of that money to buy back land. The Cobell Scholarship Fund was also created to honor her work as lead plaintiff.

Cobell won many honors before her untimely death at age 65, in 2011, including the Congressional Medal of Honor and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. In the words of Michael Munson, dean of Native American Studies at Montana’s Salish Kootenai College, she was “a warrior woman for American Indian people.”

Besides being a banker, Cobell was also a wife and mother who ran a ranch with her husband, and not least, she was a diehard Elvis fan. In her funeral procession, every car radio was tuned to a station playing Elvis Presley songs.

So, hats off to Elouise Cobell. May she continue to be celebrated as the Native American woman who made the federal government admit its wrongdoing, pay back a portion of what it owed, and finally correct an ongoing injustice.

Betsy Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. From Montana, Anna Whiting Sorrell contributed to this opinion.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

10/31/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
11/01/2022 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
11/01/2022 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
10/31/2022 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
10/31/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
11/02/2022 Billings Gazette Billings MT
11/02/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
11/02/2022 Montana Standard Butte MT
11/02/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
11/02/2022 Delta County Independent Delta CO
11/01/2022 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
11/01/2022 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
11/03/2022 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
11/03/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
11/02/2022 Taos News Taos NM
11/04/2022 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
11/04/2022 The Daily Yonder Whitesburg Ky
11/05/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
11/07/2022 Helena Independent Record Helena MT
11/05/2022 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
11/06/2022 Missoulian Missoula Montana
11/02/2022 south dakota searchlight Pierre SD
10/31/2022 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
10/31/2022 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
10/31/2022 Tigard Times Tigard OR
10/31/2022 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
10/31/2022 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
11/09/2022 Boulder Monitor Boulder MT
11/05/2022 Longmont Leader Longmont CO
11/03/2022 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
11/08/2022 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
11/09/2022 Coastal Curry Pilot Brookings OR
11/12/2022 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
11/09/2022 Denver Post Denver CO
10/31/2022 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
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Wayne Hare
1 year ago

I started my Park Service Career just as Mrs. Cobell Day’s battle with the Department of the Interior was becoming visible and prominent, but DOI sure wasn’t saying much about it to us troops. I slowly began to learn more. Price Waterhouses’ best quesstimate of the money the federal government actually owed the tribes was $50,000,000,000. So the 3.4 billion, a lot of money by any measure, was a pittance compared to what bureaucrats had stolen.

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