Indian leader Elouise Cobell dies
October 16, 2011
Elouise Cobell, whose Blackfeet name was Yellow Bird Woman and who has died aged 65, sued the United States government for billions of dollars plundered from American Indian lands – and won.
Despite growing evidence of wrongdoing, three American administrations fought the case all the way, at first dismissing her challenge as unworthy of consideration. When it became clear that their adversary would not give up, bureaucrats destroyed evidence and took retaliatory measures against Indians. Eventually, after 14 years; 3,600 court filings; 220 days of trial; 80 published court decisions and 10 appeals, Elouise Cobell's campaign ended in victory in 2009.
At $3.4 billion dollars, the sum awarded did not match her own estimation – as high as $176 billion – of the riches stolen from Indians by the American government. But it was the largest government class-action settlement in American history, with more than 300,000 beneficiaries. Without Elouise Cobell's tenacity it is certain that neither compensation, nor any recognition of misdeeds, would have been forthcoming.
Yellow Bird Woman was born on November 5 1945 on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, a great-granddaughter of the tribe's famous leader, Mountain Chief. Her parents were Polite and Catherine Pepion and she grew up with seven brothers and sisters in a home with no electricity. She was educated at Great Falls Business College before moving to Seattle to work as an accountant. After marrying, she and her husband decided to return to Montana to work the land on her family's ranch.
Her background in accounting made her the ideal candidate to take charge of the finances of the Blackfeet Nation, and she duly became treasurer in 1976. When she got her hands on the books, however, she discovered disarray stemming back more than a century.
The complexity of American Indian finances dates back to 1887, when Congress divided tribal lands into parcels, typically 80 acres per person. But Washington retained the right to sell leases on the land to private companies – usually for farming, forestry and oil exploitation. The revenues from these deals were to be held in an "Indian Trust Fund" and, in theory at least, distributed to Indian landowners. The trust was managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), itself a part of the Department of the Interior.
As Elouise Cobell delved into the Blackfeet accounts, she found that, far from acting in the best interest of Indians, the BIA had, in her words, "treated the trusts as slush funds". She alleged that prospecting rights had been sold for a fraction of what they were worth, and that through a combination of mismanagement or simple theft, billions of dollars had gone missing. Payments that did arrive were irregular and often amounted only to a few cents.
Unsurprisingly, her efforts to win redress were not welcomed at the BIA. She was fobbed off, or told that she was not qualified to analyse the accounts. "I was constantly stonewalled. The BIA said I wasn't smart enough to understand," she recalled.
In fact, she was rapidly proving her competence. In 1987 she helped set up the first bank owned by an Indian tribe – the Blackfeet National Bank. "We shattered the old stereotypes that 'Indians don't pay their bills'," she said.
Her tireless lobbying began to bear fruit in 1992, when the House of Representatives published a report with the revealing title: Misplaced Trust: The Bureau of Indian Affairs' Mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund. A law to reform the trust was passed in 1994 but little changed; two years later, on June 10 1996, Elouise Cobell took the American government to court.
Over the next few years she had to raise the millions necessary to fight the case. But backed by private foundations and, in 1997, a $300,000 "genius grant" from the John D MacArthur Foundation, she persisted even when faced with official obstruction. This became so bad that the judge hearing the case, Royce Lamberth, eventually held two Secretaries of the Interior and one Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, in contempt of court.
"The entire record in this case tells the dreary story of Interior's degenerate tenure as Trustee-Delegate for the Indian trust," Lamberth noted, describing it as "a story shot through with bureaucratic blunders, flubs, goofs and foul-ups, and peppered with scandals, deception, dirty tricks and outright villainy, the end of which is nowhere in sight."
For years the terms of a settlement proved elusive. Then, after the election of Barack Obama, the case reached a resolution, and in December 2009 compensation of $3.4 billion was announced. Of that, $1.5 billion was to be distributed to hundreds of thousands of Indian plaintiffs; the rest was earmarked to start a new scheme to buy back the fractions of Indian lands first divided up in 1887.
The deal did not please everyone. Its settlement was far less than the "compromise" $27.5 billion figure Elouise Cobell had hoped for, and some Indians were unhappy to learn that they would receive only $1,000. But she recognised that she had to be realistic, and the principle of her struggle was enshrined by Judge Lamberth, who said that the case "serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few".
For her legal battle Elouise Cobell was made, in 2000, a warrior of the Blackfeet Nation, an honour usually reserved for the tribe's war veterans. Her husband, Alvin, and a son survive her.
Elouise Cobell, born November 5 1945, died October 16 2011