Legacy of an American hero

Daily Inter Lake
October 22, 2011,

The death of Elouise Cobell is nearly — but not quite — the end of a remarkable saga that began more than 100 years ago when the U.S. government put American Indians on reservations, made promises to manage fees and royalties on reservation lands, and then essentially stole the money.

Cobell was not the first Native American to rebel against the paternalistic — and larcenous — approach of the Interior Department, but she was the most persistent, the most capable and the most unyielding critic, and through her 15-year-long struggle for justice, the federal government finally admitted its culpability and settled a class-action lawsuit for $3.4 billion involving as many as 500,000 beneficiaries.

It is remarkable, though, just how stubbornly reluctant the United States was to acknowledge its guilt — and to make right in a small way the decades of theft, incompetent bookkeeping and fraud it had perpetrated. Without Cobell, it almost certainly never would have happened.

A Blackfeet Indian from the reservation in Browning, she provided an example of leadership and character that crossed cultural lines, but Cobell was first and always an Indian, the proud great-granddaughter of the proud Blackfeet leader known as Mountain Chief.

Her love of her people and of justice combined to make her a larger-than-life figure who will be long remembered for her victory against long odds.

She told the Associated Press in 2010 that she hoped she would inspire a new generation of American Indians to fight for the rights of others and lift their community out of poverty.

“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.”

That is an ambition we should all share, though few of us will ever do as much for so many as Cobell was able to accomplish.

It should be noted finally, that, while Cobell did so much hard work for her people, she did not quite live to witness the final outcome of her quest for justice. Hopefully, the few remaining appeals will be settled quickly, and this settlement will live on as a monument to Cobell, especially the $60 million which will be used to fund scholarships for Native Americans. That is truly a proud legacy.