Happy Birthday, Elouise Pepion Cobell!

November 5, 2011,

Elouise Pepion Cobell, born November 5, 1945, was as remarkable in the years before the lawsuit against the federal government as she was during them. I taught English to her husband in high school and later taught with her sister, Julene, but didn’t know Elouise well. she was part of the contingent of “boomers” who accepted JFK’s challenge to “do for your country,” which they defined as Blackfeet Country. This Browning cohort has been the hinge on which progress has swung.

Educated in part by government boarding school and then by Great Falls Commercial College and some time at the University of Montana in Bozeman, she was a careful and diligent bookkeeper, which earned her the post of tribal treasurer. She comes from a family of famous artists, all descended from Politte Pepion, a French freight hauler in the early days, who married into distinguished Blackfeet families like Mountain Chief. She was the member of the family who stayed on the Blacktail Creek original Dawes allotment to take care of her parents and there she remained to the end.

In 1983 the only bank in Browning closed after seventy years. It was originally founded by white traders and businesses that had mostly closed by this time. Story at:

It’s hard to realize what this means to a small prairie town forty miles away from the next bank in a place where roads are often closed. Just the physical act of taking money to the bank was a major vulnerability. No one owned an armored car. In 1987 Elouise was active in starting the Blackfeet bank, a key to progress and growth and, I believe, the very first Native American bank. It was a turning point. One of the major problems in a place like the reservation is that people consider so many things “unthinkable.” Elouise’s great gift was that she found NOTHING “unthinkable.”

So when Bob Scriver was trying to find some way to keep his ranch on the Flatiron Creek off the commercial ranching market as a perpetual wildlife easement, even Nature Conservancy said that it was not possible because their authorization was through the State of Montana, which doesn’t include the reservation. Elouise’s insight was that if a reservation is outside the state, its sovereignty entitles it to the same rights as the state, so it DID have the authority to work with Nature Conservancy.

The result was a collaboration between Nature Conservancy and the Blackfeet Land Trust which made the ranch a center for the study of ecology. Bob had thought it deserved preservation because grizzlies and wolves hung out there. (Especially since he dumped carrion to attract predators where he could see them from the house, which the neighbors didn’t appreciate.) He was surprised that because the drainage descends from the Rockies through small lake after small lake, it becomes more saline as it goes downhill. This causes the ecology to shift, both plants and animals changing since they are inter-related.

After Bob’s death I went on the botany hike around the ranch, which was at the outer limits of my walking capacity. Elouise was there to explain what had been done and why. I was not emotionally attached to that ranch (I was bonded to the smaller place on Two Medicine where I spent a winter) but I was very grateful to Elouise. Within weeks her relative was wanting to run his cattle there. Local people were not yet able to “see” such things as ecology or its study, much less wildlife easements.

The Nature Conservancy development of the Flatiron Ranch has been low-key but it has fared better than the privatized Seven Eagles Ranch not far away that once belonged to Bob Scriver’s brother and more recently was the home of an ill-fated project to raise traditional wild horses. Bob never made money off his ranch. It was a sacred place to him. It’s where he put up his badger tipi and where he wanted to be buried. The Montana Historical Society cannot say what they did with that tipi. Bob ended up being buried with his family in the Cut Bank cemetery. Water that runs downhill becomes more salty.

Because Elouise was solid and discreet, and because she was now traveling in banker’s circles, which always included a lot of lawyers, and even overlapped Kentucky racehorse circles (the Cobell ranch must be the only one on the rez with white-painted board fences), she was able to attract the attention of people who really manage the money systems of the United States, not necessarily those dominated by the US Government. The value of moving in such circles is not just being around money enough to understand how and where it goes, but also access to the relaxed times of sitting around, sipping something smooth, shooting the breeze, and speculating on what could be done. It was in one of those times that a lawyer remarked, sort of casually, “You Indians are fools for not suing the government for their abuse of trustee status.” Bingo.

Elouise was not naive about this. She knew she would be under attack almost from the beginning. She just decided to do it. (“If not now, when?) Earl Old Person, normally bold if strategic, couldn’t make up his mind, going in and out of the lawsuit.

Regardless of what happens with the money, I take the position that the raw nastiness of what was uncovered in this lawsuit — records dumped into warehouses, chewed up by rats, unsorted or posted, discarded, scrambled, guestimated, a computer system that was open to any casual hacker, plus the fact that there was no decent on-going system of record-keeping even after the lawsuit began, is enough consciousness-raising and pressure for reform to be in itself worth the cost. Inevitably the payout will stall and be minimized if only by death of the persons entitled to their own money for all these decades. Whatever the checks amount to, they won’t be as much as an agriculture subsidy, and soon will have been spent for things good and bad.

But it is now demonstrably true that Indians do care about their lease money, where it goes and how, and that they are capable of doing something about corruption. Not so mysterious now are the web of laws, regulations, and ways of doing business that have kept Indians out of the marketplace as much as has the meddling of the BIA, diversions to cronies, and general cynicism. Whatever people might think about what they see now, Elouise tore away the web that covered their eyes and challenged them to look.