Cobell downplayed hero status, but hero she was

The Great Falls Tribune
October 17, 2011

We've lost a hero.

News that Elouise Cobell died Sunday at a Great Falls hospital after battling cancer wasn't entirely unexpected, but it hit hard nonetheless.

Cobell, 65, the Browning-born-and-raised activist who led a successful lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of Native American landowners, showed us by example how to engage in a just fight.

She recognized the mismanagement by the federal government of land trusts on allotments owned by individual Indians. Royalties from logging grazing, mining and oil drilling weren't being paid to landowners with any kind of consistency, and in many cases not at all.

Cobell took the lead in a class-action lawsuit to recover for landowners and their descendants payments for use of the lands — payments that were supposed to have been held in trust by the federal government.

The suit took almost 15 years to reach a $3.4 billion settlement, and shamefully it still is tied up in court despite congressional and presidential approval. Two secretaries of the Interior and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin were held in contempt by the federal judge hearing the case for failing to address a "dysfunctional system."

About two-thirds of the way through the case Judge Royce C. Lamberth was removed by a panel of higher court judges who said he displayed strong bias against the Interior Department.

"That was low point," Cobell told The Associated Press. "We knew it would be hard to get a new judge up to speed. The government has all the money in the world, but we don't have deep pockets."

The fight, however, continued.

In 2009, a settlement was announced: $1.4 billion would go to individual Indian account holders; some $2 billion would be used by the government to buy up fractionated Indian lands from individual owners willing to sell, and then turn those lands over to tribes; and $60 million more would be used for a scholarship fund for young Indians.

Elouise Cobell's legacy extends beyond her role in the historic court battle.

In the mid-1980s after several failed attempts to get a bank to locate a branch in Browning, Cobell — then treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe — lead the successful effort to open the Blackfeet National Bank.

From that vantage point, Cobell identified the need for and then implemented programs to enhance financial literacy among residents of all ages on the Blackfeet Reservation.

She spearheaded and chaired the first Harvest Moon Ball in East Glacier Park 15 years ago, with the goal of creating an endowment to provide capital for projects in Blackfeet Nation. This year's ball was held Sept. 24.

Asked by the New York Times what she wanted her legacy to be, she said she hoped she would inspire a new generation of Native Americans to fight for the rights of others and lift their community out of poverty.

"Maybe one of these days, they won't even think about me. They'll just keep going and say, 'This is because I did it,"' Cobell said. "I never started this case with any intentions of being a hero. I just wanted this case to give justice to people that didn't have it."

Today we grieve our loss and extend condolences to her family.

Elouise Cobell will not be forgotten — and she is, indeed, a hero.