Elouise Cobell, force behind Indian trust case, dies at 65

The Missoulian
October 16, 2011

Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet woman from Browning who won a historic $3.4 billion settlement for Indian people cheated by the federal government, died Sunday night at Benefis Healthcare in Great Falls. She was 65.

"A great woman and a Blackfeet warrior," state Rep. Shannon Augare, a family friend, called her Sunday. "She was a saint."

Cobell had surgery in April at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for what she described then as "a serious cancer." She gave no further details at the time.

For 15 years, Cobell pursued a case on behalf of more than 500,000 Indian people due royalties from the federal government dating back a century for the use of their lands. In 2009, the federal government settled for more than $3.4 billion, one of the largest class-action settlements in the country's history.

"She has accomplished more for the individual, I think, Native Americans than any other person recently that I can think of in history," said U.S. Senior District Judge Thomas F. Hogan of Washington, D.C., at a hearing in June on the settlement.

The settlement "closes a long and unfortunate chapter in our history," President Barack Obama said when he signed it into law in 2010, a year after it was announced. "It's finally time to make things right." Cobell said after the signing ceremony that she never expected to live to see her battle won.

Over the years, Cobell received national and international recognition for her work. She won a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur "genius" grant in 2007 and an International Women's Forum award in 2002.

"You fought a David and Goliath battle and won, " said Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim when she was awarded an honorary doctorate in June.

Last month, Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester nominated her for the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor given by Congress, first awarded to George Washington.

But, like so many of those for whom she fought, Cobell died waiting for the money to be distributed.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Washington allowed appeals of the settlement to move forward. Cobell had argued forcefully against such appeals, pointing out that many beneficiaries of the settlement were elderly, and that others had already died without ever seeing their money returned.

Cobell was born on the Blackfeet Reservation on Nov. 5, 1945. She was one of eight children and a great granddaughter of Mountain Chief, one of the legendary Indian leaders of the West, said her spokesman Bill McAllister.

She served as co-chair of Native American Bank and as a former trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, and was treasurer for the Blackfeet Indian Nation for 13 years.

She and her husband operated a working ranch, and founded the first Land Trust in Indian Country. She also served as a trustee for the Nature Conservancy of Montana and was executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp., a nonprofit affiliate of Native American Bank.

Cobell graduated from Great Falls Business College and attended Montana State University, from which she also received an honorary doctorate.

Her survivors include her husband, Alvin Cobell, a son, Turk Cobell and his wife Bobbie, two grandchildren, Olivia, and Gabriella, a brother, Dale Pepion, three sisters, Julene Kennerly, Joy Ketah and Karen Powell.