Elouise Cobell, who led $3.4 billion settlement
for Native Americans, has died at 65

Global Post
October 17, 2011

Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet woman who spearheaded a legal campaign that resulted in a multibillion-dollar settlement on behalf of Native Americans, has died, aged 65.

Elouise Cobell, who spearheaded a legal campaign that resulted in a historic multibillion-dollar settlement on behalf of Native Americans, has died, aged 65, according to U.S. news reports.

Cobell died at a Great Falls hospital, according to the Great Falls Tribune: She had been undergoing treatment for cancer since last spring, ultimately having surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the Missoulian reports.

The Associated Press writes that:

Cobell was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in 1996 claiming the Interior Department had misspent, lost or stolen billions of dollars meant for Native American land trust account holders dating back to the 1880s.

After years of legal wrangling, the two sides in 2009 agreed to settle for $3.4 billion, the largest government class-action settlement in U.S. history. The beneficiaries are estimated to be about 500,000 people.

When he signed it into law in 2010, a year after it was announced, President Barack Obama said the settlement "closes a long and unfortunate chapter in our history."

When awarding her an honorary doctorate in June Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim reportedly said: "You fought a David and Goliath battle and won."

Cobell, born on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana, was one of eight children and a granddaughter of legendary Indian leader Mountain Chief.

Cobell, according to the AP, had heard stories since childhood of how Native Americans earning royalties from the use of their land for resource development or farming were being shortchanged.

She began digging and discovered that since the 1880s, the government had squandered money belonging to "people who were living in dire poverty on the Blackfeet reservation."

She sued with four other Native Americans and, when the government fought back, spent the next 14 years filing documents, going to trial, and appealing until the 2009 ruling in her favor.

However, Cobell — and many others from her community — have died waiting for the money to be distributed, as a federal judge in Washington earlier this month allowed appeals of the settlement to move forward.

Cobell, according to the Missoulian, had pointed out "that many beneficiaries of the settlement were elderly, and that others had already died without ever seeing their money returned."