The burial of Elouise Cobell

High Country News
By Mark Ratledge
ESSAY - From the November 28, 2011 issue

Elouise Cobell filed her class action suit in 1996 and originally thought it would take only three years to resolve the issues. She joined Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder in making the settlement announcement. Tami A. Heilemann-DOI

On Oct. 22, Elouise Cobell was buried on the Blacktail Ranch where she and her husband had lived. Blackfeet and Catholic prayers were said, and Hutterite girls sang hymns, and the Montana wind never stopped blowing. Some thought that Napi -- the "Old Man," the supernatural trickster, troublemaker and ultimate helper of the Blackfeet -- was present, too.

Elouise Pepion Cobell -- Inokesquetee saki or Yellowbird Woman -- was a member of the Blackfeet Nation, the great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief. She was a rancher and Blackfeet banker, a MacArthur Foundation fellow, and, most famously, the lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Salazar and The Department of the Interior. When she died Oct. 16 in a Great Falls, Mont., hospice, after a long bout with cancer, she was 65.

The Blacktail Ranch lies on the rolling prairie of the Blackfeet Reservation, within sight of the peaks of Glacier National Park. Every time Cobell drove to Browning to work as executive director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, she passed Starvation Ridge, where nearly one-quarter of the Blackfeet Nation died during the winter of 1883-'84 because the inept Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to provide treaty rations of grain and cattle.

Cobell often flew to Washington, D.C., for her work on Cobell v. Salazar, the largest class-action lawsuit in U.S. history, filed in 1996 against the federal government over its mishandling of $50 billion in mineral royalties owed to tribal members. It took 15 years to resolve the century-long mess of lost and destroyed records, missing payments and inaccurate accounting of Indian Trust funds. The suit persisted through the tenures of four Interior Department secretaries: Babbitt, Norton, Kempthorne, and finally, Salazar. It was all but settled for $3.4 billion, awaiting congressional appropriations -- and President Obama's signature on the law -- when she passed away.

That morning, thousands of mourners packed the service at the Browning High School gym. The night before, the Crazy Dog Society escorted the casket to the high school for the rosary service, stopping four times to sing and dance a warrior song, because that's what Elouise Cobell was: a warrior in the realms of the law, the banks and the economy of the Blackfeet Reservation.

In the afternoon at the Blacktail Ranch, people waited in their cars out of the wind. The air was clear; 30 miles to the west, the peaks of Glacier were shrouded in clouds dumping the first winter snow.

Funeral directors unloaded flowers next to a white tepee, its poles squeaking in the wind, and lined up folding chairs, which the wind blew down.

Hutterite girls in bright blue and purple taffeta dresses and scarves sheltered out of the wind on the west side of the Cobells' small ranch house. A yellow school bus brought them from the nearby Birch Creek Colony, home to a communal branch of Anabaptists. They'd come to pay their respects along with local ranchers, Blackfeet from across the reservation and VIPs from Washington, D.C.

The ranch house itself had lost a few pieces of siding and much paint to the wind over the years. (In this part of Montana, wind blows freight trains off the tracks, and school bus trips are cancelled not because of snow but because the wind might topple the buses.) Cobell's MacArthur grant money went to the long-running legal case, not her family's ranch house or cattle operation.

In the lee of the house, I talked with a banker who had driven 900 miles from Denver. He'd worked with Cobell to form the first Native American-owned bank in Browning in 1987, 10 years before the famous lawsuit was filed.

A neighboring rancher offered me a pocket flask of whiskey, joking that he couldn't sleep unless the wind whistled in his bedroom window. Other ranchers and Hutterite men kept their backs to the wind while they talked about the fall harvest and shipping cattle to market.

Someone's cell phone rang; the hearse had gotten a flat tire at Badger Creek, a few miles up the road. People shook their heads. A rancher said, "With what they charge for this, they should have all new tires."

Then a car stopped on the highway and a TV news cameraman climbed a small hill to point his camera up the road. "They must be getting here," someone said.

Two sheriff's cars pulled in off the highway, past the Blackfeet Nation flag flapping above the Cobells' mailbox. The casket was in the back of a pickup truck, secured with cargo straps. The driver pulled in close to the folding chairs and the pallbearers carried the casket to the graveside. People laughed; Elouise must be laughing at the flat tire, too, they said. They thought she would be proud of this service and the way she arrived home to her ranch.

Cobell had always loved Elvis Presley and singing along to the car radio. The earlier service at the high school gym had life-size Elvis cutouts behind the priest and featured a slideshow of her visit to Graceland. Sheet cakes from the grocery store were decorated with photos of Elvis and Elouise. The day before, a Browning radio station played Elvis music all day long in her honor.

There was a prayer in Blackfeet, and a drummer quietly sang another Blackfeet warrior song, most of the words snatched away by the wind. A cluster of Black Angus moaned in the pasture. The priest spoke and then turned to the two dozen Hutterite girls behind him. They sang two hymns, words split by gusts of wind: "Over yonder, there will be no parting, no crying. ... Rejoicing to see our savior upon his throne...."

The priest sprinkled holy water on the casket, and flowers were placed atop it. And then it was time to lower it into the ground. The people who had laughed about the casket's journey in the pickup now broke down in tears. A long line formed to greet the family. The funeral directors started to work the dirt over the casket, and the mourners began to drift to their cars.

I looked around for a rancher I knew who had grown up on the nearby Two Medicine River. He knew Cobell when they were both young. He told me later that he saw the hearse with the flat on the highway and stopped to offer his respects. He'd planned to attend the burial too, he said, but he could see that Napi, the trickster, had intervened.

Perhaps Napi wanted to make a point -- maybe by keeping Elouise on earth a bit longer. Napi, however, is foolish and impetuous and often makes a mess of things by trying a little too hard. No one seemed surprised by the flat tire, the humor or the sadness.

I knew Cobell only from an interview last April at her office in Browning. I watched with a few staffers on an office PC as court proceedings streamed from D.C., and then waited as Cobell made a conference call to her attorneys, discussing strategy and quietly laughing at the opposition's last-minute attempts to derail the settlement.

There was a painting of Mountain Chief on her wall. Cobell said, "Maybe I was born with my great-grandfather Mountain Chief's genes, and wanted to fight for justice. And it never left my mind that you have to stand up for what's right."

Mountain Chief steadfastly fought the whiskey traders and invading homesteaders on the shrinking Blackfeet Reservation in the mid and late 19th century. But Col. Eugene Baker and the U.S. Army responded by entering a Blackfeet winter camp in bottomlands of the Marias River on a 30-below January morning in 1870. After the Baker Massacre, the Blackfeet were pushed to a smaller reservation, and for years, many refused to speak of the massacre or the defeat of the great tribe of the northern plains.

Growing up, Cobell learned about Marias River and Starvation Ridge from her family. Those stories stayed with her. "My mother used to say, 'I didn't raise any weak women, I only raised strong women.' And so we remembered not to run away and say, 'Poor me, poor me.' We were standing up and being strong."

Now, with Cobell gone, the legal settlement may be in trouble due to new appeals and federal government budget cuts.

A relative of Cobell's died of cancer the same day she passed. James Mad Dog Kennely made and sold beaded bracelets to supplement his Social Security checks. Due to the mess of the Indian Trust system, he got an $89 annual royalty check for $6,000 worth of oil pumped from his land. For years, he waited for the small amount of money the settlement would bring.

In Cobell's office, I saw a small piece of paper taped to the back of her computer monitor. I glanced at it frequently during the half hour I was there. I knew it was there for me -- and anyone else sitting in that chair -- to read and think about.

It read:
First they ignore you,
then they laugh at you,
then they fight you,
then you win.