Elouise Cobell, fearless fighter, dead at 65

The Farmington Daily Times
October 18, 2011

Elouise Cobell, the woman who led a 16-year legal battle over Indian trust lands against the federal government, died Sunday in Great Falls, Mont. She was 65.

Cobell, an enrolled member of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, in 1996 filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, seeking damages for about 500,000 American Indians whose trust accounts were mismanaged.

The case started when Cobell, who had an Individual Indian Money account, uncovered mismanagement of those accounts by the federal government while she was working as an accountant. Trust accounts ranged in size from 35 cents to $1 million, with some originating from the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887.

A federal judge found that records of Indian accounts were inadequate and that individuals could never receive a full accounting of funds and trust assets. President Barack Obama in December 2009 approved settlement of the lawsuit for $3.4 billion, the largest-ever class-action settlement with the federal government. The settlement, though attorneys called it "the best we could get," fell short of the $176 billion some estimate is owed.

Further, the government originally allotted 54 million acres to individual American Indians, Dennis Gingold, attorney for the plaintiffs, previously said. Only 10-11 million acres are held in trust today.

"The government doesn't know what happened to more than 40 million acres," he said. "If we had a full accounting, we would know what happened."

Gingold accused the federal government of destroying paper records of the accounts. He said the government settled because the "trust was mismanaged so atrociously that no one wanted to deal with it."

Cobell was diagnosed with cancer just weeks before a federal district judge approved the $3.4 billion settlement June 20. The settlement then went before Obama and Congress for ratification before returning to district court for final approval and judgment, which was entered Aug. 4.

Cobell didn't live to see her share of the settlement, or the $2 million awarded to her to pay back debts incurred from her extensive travel for the case. "That $2 million was a special award made to her by the court to reimburse her for what she spent on litigation," said Bill McAllister, a spokesman for Cobell and the case. "The award is not a big windfall for her or her family. She traveled the country, back and forth to Washington, and over the course of those yeas, her expenses were quite considerable." Two appeals were filed since that final approval, one Aug. 6 and the other Sept. 1, so no individual account holders have seen settlement dollars, McAllister said. Because Cobell was an account holder, her family still stands to receive settlement funds.

The death was not unexpected, McAllister said.

"She had been ill and was just unable to make the recovery she hoped to," he said.

Cobell filed her June 1996 lawsuit against the secretaries of the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury. The suit claimed the federal government mismanaged trust funds belonging to half a million individuals over the course of 125 years.

The allotment act issued individual land rights to American Indians, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs managed the lands. Land owners were supposed to receive royalty checks for subsurface resources, but the government made no reports of the money owed or paid, or of the interest earned.

Many of those individual account holders were Navajo, and Cobell spent a lot of time in the Four Corners area, helping Navajo citizens understand their rights under the potential settlement.

"What was unique about Ms. Cobell was she had a real heart for Indian elderly people," said Ervin Chavez, president of Shi Shi Kéyah, a Navajo group that has fought for American Indian individuals' rights for nearly three decades. "She fought for people at the hogan level. It's so sad that we lose people of her caliber. ...It is a sad day for all of Indian country. Her work will be felt for many years to come."

Cobell's last visit to Farmington was in February, when she visited with hundreds of Navajo citizens who each stood to receive a settlement check of at least $800. For many of the people, the settlement was less about the money and more about victory, Cobell said in February, flanked by supporters who gathered at the Farmington Civic Center to advocate on her behalf.

"We were able to stand up for individual Indians and get them justice," Cobell told The Daily Times in February. "This is the largest class-action lawsuit in history, and we're making the government pay attention to individual Indians."