Cancer claims Elouise Cobell

Native American Times
October 24, 2011,

BROWNING, Mont. – Elouise Cobell searched for 16 years to find accountability.

She eventually found it as the lead plaintiff in the largest U.S. class-action settlement in history that will remunerate American Indians for years of mishandled land royalties by the U.S. government. She sought fairness, not just for herself, but for all American Indians.

“She always just wanted to do what was right and for justice,” Steven Powell, Cobell’s nephew, said. “She was great. She had a lot of personality. She had one of the biggest hearts that I’d ever seen in my life. She never put herself up on a pedestal.”

In 1994 when Powell, now 33, was in high school he completed an internship for Cobell at the Native American Community Development Corporation, where Cobell served as executive director. At the time she was beginning to lay the ground work to file the class-action lawsuit.

“She had a heart of gold. She always put her employees before herself and she always led by example. She had a staff that was dedicated just because of who she was; the way she treated us. She was the best boss I ever had in my entire life,” Powell said. “She’s dearly missed.”

Powell was also with Cobell when President Barack Obama signed The Claims Resolution Act of 2010 and with her when she died Oct. 16 from cancer at Benefis Hospital in Great Falls, Mont. at the age of 65.

Obama said in a statement he and first lady Michelle Obama were saddened by the news of Cobell’s death, and their thoughts and prayers are with her family and everyone who mourns her passing.

“Elouise spoke out when she saw that the Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect on behalf of more than 300,000 of her fellow Native Americans. Because she did, I was able to sign into law a piece of legislation that finally provided a measure of justice to those who were affected. That law also creates a scholarship fund to give more Native Americans access to higher education, and give tribes more control over their own lands. Elouise helped to strengthen the government to government relationship with Indian country ...”

Cobell underwent surgery for her cancer in April at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The type of cancer that took her life has never been specified. She was buried Oct. 22 at her Cobell Blacktail Ranch, 26 miles south of Browning, Mont. Her eulogy was read by her friend Zita Bremmer. Also speaking was the lead attorney in the Cobell V. Salazar lawsuit Dennis Gingold, First Interstate Bank Chief Executive Jim Scott and her son Turk Cobell.

“One of the biggest emphases that she placed on that whole lawsuit was that we have elders in our communities that are dying every day and they still haven’t received their red cent,” Loren BirdRattler, Cobell’s cousin, said. “The U.S. government needs to speed that along because … she’s the lead plaintiff and she’s gone as well. She will never see the fruition of her work.”

BirdRattler said he knows in his heart Cobell didn’t file the lawsuit for monetary gain, although “the fact of the matter is she will not get to enjoy that.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in 1996, currently faces several appeals in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia which could extend the case into 2012. Once all appeals are resolved then the final approval can become effective. Along with Cobell there are four other plaintiffs in the case.

“When Cobell v. Salazar reached the political congressional arena, Elouise adroitly recognized the political axiom that ‘Politics is the art of compromise.’ And while many affected Indians considered the so-called settlement as a mere pittance for the government’s mismanagement of their land asset, Elouise recognized that if the affected Indians were to receive any settlement at all, it would be necessary to accept a compromise award. She displayed mature leadership under these circumstances and fought hard for the compromise settlement. She fully understood that the compromise settlement would be controversial. However, she soldiered on as a leader and traveled extensively in Indian country to meet with the affected parties to try and help them understand why the actual settlement did not reach the level of what they believed would be fair,” Forrest J. Gerard, former Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, stated. “Later she spent long arduous hours lobbying members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate to support the compromise settlement and to enact appropriate legislation to make it the law of the land. Her efforts ultimately led to the enactment of Public Law 111-291.”

Gerard said Cobell’s non-monetary contributions are immeasurable and the Cobell Family, the Blackfeet Tribe and Indian country lost a tireless and intelligent leader whose perseverance contributed to the $3.4 billion in congressional settlement of Cobell v. Salazar. His sentiment has been echoed throughout Indian country since news of Cobell’s death spread.

“Indian country, as well as the entire nation, has lost a champion of human rights,” Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, said in a statement released last week. “Elouise Cobell battled to make our country acknowledge historical wrongdoing, and she spoke truth to power so that justice could prevail.”

BirdRattler said throughout the duration of the lawsuit Cobell put her life in to it as well as much of her own money, including the monetary award she received in 1997 as part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Fellows program “Genius” grant.

“Someone that giving of them self to accomplish something that she truly believed in, to right a wrong, it just speaks tremendously for her,” BirdRattler said. “She was a very passionate woman that stood up for what she believes in … She leaves behind a legacy: If you stand up for what you believe in … justice will prevail in the end.”

Cobell also received a Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship in 2005 that recognized her determination to uncover the “more than a century of government malfeasance and dishonesty,” when it came to the mismanaged Indian trust accounts.

“Elouise Cobell was a star—truly a guiding light that will always lead the way for all Americans who fight for justice and fairness. Elouise’s tireless leadership set this nation on a new course, and what she accomplished reminds us that any person in any part of this country has the power to stand up and right a wrong, no matter how difficult it may be,” Sen. Jon Tester (D - Mont.) stated. “Future generations will learn about Elouise Cobell’s legacy and they will be inspired to follow her lead. She will always be remembered as an American hero.”

Tester and Sen. Max Baucus (D – Mont.), recently presented legislation to award Cobell a Congressional Gold Medal.

BirdRattler said awarding Cobell the Congressional Medal of Honor is deserved and only fitting. He said she always put her community and people first before herself and that type of character and integrity is not found in too many people. She was just such a kind person and was kind to everyone she came in contact with, he said.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Elouise Cobell, who dedicated her life to the betterment of Indian people. She sought justice to address historical wrongs that had weighed on our nation’s conscience and was a significant force for change … Elouise is a hero in every sense of the word,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said. “As we pause to reflect on Elouise’s life and achievements, let us be inspired to do better by the first Americans, and to uphold our nation’s promise of justice and opportunity for all.”

Cobell was born on Nov. 5, 1945 on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. She has seven siblings. Her Indian name is Yellow Bird Woman; she is a member of Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe, and a great granddaughter of Mountain Chief, a legendary Indian leader.

She was a Great Falls Business College graduate and attended Montana State University (MSU). She holds an honorary doctorate from MSU, Rollins College and Dartmouth College. In 2002 she received the “Women Who Make a Difference” award from the International Women’s Forum, in 2004 she received the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, in 2007 she received the AARP Impact Award (for making the world a better place), in 2010 she received the National Congress of American Indians(NCAI) Indian Country Leadership Award, and in 2011 the Montana Trial Lawyers Association named her “Montana Citizen of the Year.”

Some of Cobell’s other achievements include being one of the Denver-based Native American Bank founders, co-chairwoman of Native American Bank NA, former trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, and served as Blackfeet Indian Nation treasurer for 13 years.

Cobell and her husband produced cattle and crops on their ranch; she founded the first Land Trust in Indian country and was a Nature Conservancy of Montana trustee.

Cobell leaves behind her husband Alvin Cobell of Blacktail, Mont., her son Turk Cobell and his wife, Bobbie, of Las Vegas, two grandchildren, Olivia, and Gabriella, a brother, Dale Pepion of Browning, Mont., and three sisters, Julene Kennerly of Browning, Mont., Joy Ketah of Seattle and Karen Powell of Browning, Mont.

“Elouise Cobell represented the indelible will and strength of Indian Country and her influence and energy will be greatly missed. Her passing on from this world must be honored by reaffirming our resolute commitment as Indigenous peoples to protect the rights of our citizens and our sovereign nations,” Jefferson Keel, NCAI president, said.

Anyone who wants to make a donation in Cobell’s honor can send the gift in her name to the

Blackfeet Reservation Development Fund, PO Box 3029, Browning, MT 59417, which is a 501-C-3 organization. Letters of condolence may be mailed to the Cobell family at: NACDC Executive Office, 101 Pata St., PO Box 3029, Browning, MT 59417. Condolences and remembrances may also be sent via email to:

Powell said someone also created a Facebook page as a tribute to Cobell, and he thinks people will remember her as a “woman warrior,” because she taught people to stand up and fight for themselves, and whatever happened to American Indians in the past will never happen again.

“All that time, her perseverance, and never taking no for an answer; it’s just amazing to me,” Powell said.