Cobell, face of billion dollar federal lawsuit,
dies at 65

Travis Coleman, University of Montana
Reznet News
October 17, 2011

Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet woman who prevailed over the U.S. government in a lawsuit on the mismanagement of American Indian lands, died of complications from cancer Sunday in a Great Falls, Mont. hospital. She was 65.

Born and raised on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Cobell spent 15 years in litigation with the federal government when a $3.4 billion settlement was reached in 2009.

Cobell said the federal government failed to properly manage the money held in trust for Native American landowners for development on their lands. Cobell died before any of that settlement could be paid out to the more than 500,000 Native Americans beneficiaries she represented, as the case has been held up by appeals.

Following news of her death, public officials from even the highest levels sent statements of condolence.

“Elouise spoke out when she saw that the Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect,” said President Barack Obama in a statement Monday morning. “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.”

Cobell was born on Nov. 5, 1945. She was one of eight children and a great granddaughter of Mountain Chief, a legendary Blackfeet leader. After graduating from business college in Great Falls, Cobell returned to the Blackfeet tribe to eventually become its treasurer. It was then that the stories she heard – of tribal members not receiving royalties for the oil, gas, grazing and other development on their lands – led her to pursue a lawsuit against the federal government.

Cobell was one of five original named plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar. She went on to become the face of the case. Cobell’s work was recognized by a myriad of organizations and groups. She was given an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College earlier this year and was recently nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor given by Congress.

Cobell maintained strong ties to Montana during this time. She founded the first Native American bank located on a reservation, owned by the Blackfeet tribe. Her work with the Native American Bank branched out into a nonprofit affiliate, the Native American Community Development Corp. She and her husband also worked on a ranch on the Blackfeet Reservation.

She is survived by 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.