Friends, family and community honor Elouise Cobell at funeral services

Buffalo's Fire Blog
By Jodi Rave
October 22, 2011,

BROWNING, Mont. – On Friday, hundreds of mourners lined the sidewalks or sat in their cars along Main Street in Browning, Mont., joining hundreds of fellow citizens of the Blackfeet Nation who arrived to honor Elouise Cobell who died Oct. 16.

The white hearst carrying her casket was escorted through town by police, a color guard, drummers, singers and Pendleton-covered walkers. The procession marked the beginning of a public viewing and all-night rosary service for a woman hailed as a hero, a fighter of justice for American Indians across the country.

While hundreds of people blanketed Main Street Friday afternoon, just as many people drove their cars behind the hearst carrying Cobell’s casket from the Conrad funeral home near Valier, Mont. to the Browning High School gymnasium. The motorcade stretched for about two miles. Pink streamers fluttered from car windows in acknowledgement of the cancer that took Cobell’s life.

“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Tony Beaudry, a Blackfeet citizen whose words echoed many other lifelong residents on the Blackfeet Reservation. “She’s one of our people. She’s one of us. She was for Indian people.” Beaudry said he brought his entire family to be a part of the procession to honor the Blackfeet woman.

Cobell, 65, died of cancer after being diagnosed with the disease in April. She was a businesswoman and community developer who gained national fame for her dogged role in leading a nearly 16-year-long legal battle against the U.S. Interior Department. In the fight, she sought justice for a half million American Indian landowners whose natural resource revenue had been mismanaged by the department for more than a century.

Turk Russell Cobell followed the hearst that carried his mother’s body to the gymnasium. During the funeral service on Saturday, Cobell said he was overwhelmed by the number of people who stood along main street in honor of his mom. It was “one of the proudest days of my life,” said Cobell, the only child of Elouise and Alvin Turk Cobell.

The hearst was flanked by a maroon SUV playing Elvis Presley songs, which were also being broadcast on the local tribal radio station. “Viva Las Vegas” echoed off buildings and pavement. Elvis clearly had a strong presence – in music, cardboard cutouts, family pictures and on memorial cakes — during an otherwise somber two days of mourning.

The funeral services on Saturday beckoned some of the most influential people in the United States and in Indian affairs to the Blackfeet Reservation to say good-bye to a woman known for her tenacity and refusal to take no for an answer.

Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus paid tribute to Cobell, as did Larry Echo Hawk, Interior Secretary of Indian Affairs. In addition, tribal leaders from North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Florida, Arizona and other states bid farewell to Cobell who many are already describing as an historic figure in American Indian history.

Young Turk said his mother had planned many of the details of her funeral, including who she wanted to speak on her behalf. During the Saturday services, four people shared stories and memories of Inokesquetee Saki, Yellowbird Woman: Dennis Gingold, lead lawyer on the Cobell litigation team; Jim Scott, vice chairman of First Interstate Bank’s board of directors; and Turk Cobell. Zita Bremner, childhood friend delivered the eulogy.

Like many people, I was moved by the influence and respect Cobell had garnered from perhaps her greatest adversary, the U.S. Interior Department. The Cobell v. Salazar suit bears her name as well as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the lead defendant in the case that was filed in 1996.

Salazar ordered U.S. flags at the Interior Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs offices to be flown at half-staff on Monday, Oct. 24. When I spoke with Echo Hawk on Friday, he said this may be the first time in the history of the Interior Department that flags will be lowered for an American Indian. Echo Hawk said he was on his way to a gathering of the Alaska Federation of Natives when he changed course to attend Cobell’s funeral. He also canceled his testimony scheduled with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs where he was expected to address Indian youth suicide.

Although Congress and President Barack Obama signed off on a $3.4 billion settlement in December 2010, the settlement is now being appealed.

Cobell was buried Saturday afternoon on her family’s Blacktail Ranch near Valier, Mont.