Blackfeet Woman Sued Washington for Unpaid Indian Royalties

By Stephen Miller
The Wall Street Journal
October 18, 2011

Elouise Cobell's determination to see justice done for thousands of Indians resulted in a recent $3.4 billion settlement, among the largest government class-action accords in history.

Ms. Cobell, who died Sunday at age 65, was a Blackfeet Indian from Montana with an accounting background. She undertook a 15-year crusade on behalf of about 500,000 Indians in Western states who claimed that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had failed to account for billions of dollars in royalties from leased reservation lands.

Although she lived long enough to see Congress authorize payments in 2010, the deal between the Indians and the U.S. government has been held up by appeals.

Under a congressional mandate, the Bureau was responsible for holding in trust royalties from oil and gas wells, mining and other activities on Indian lands. The suit Ms. Cobell filed in 1996 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., claimed that few payments were made and record-keeping was shoddy. The total amount involved since the program began in 1887 was claimed to be $47 billion or more.

Ms Cobell grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, near the Canadian border in western Montana. She never finished college but was trained as an accountant.

In the early 1970s, she moved back to the reservation to work a ranch with her husband, and became treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation. Having heard her relatives grumble about the missing trust funds as a girl, she questioned BIA officials about their record-keeping.

"They said, 'Oh, you don't know how to read the reports,"' she told The Wall Street Journal in 1999. "I think they were trying to embarrass me, but it did the opposite. It made me mad."

In 1987, Ms. Cobell helped found the Blackfeet National Bank, the first bank established on a reservation by Indians. Founding her own bank helped increase her awareness of the difficulty of getting an accounting from the BIA. Nine years later, she and four other Indian plaintiffs filed suit against the government, and Ms. Cobell emerged as the lead plaintiff.

The legal fight proved all-consuming, and Ms. Cobell eventually moved to Washington to work on it full-time. A 1997 MacArthur Foundation grant helped defray costs, which the lead attorney, Dennis Gingold, estimated involved 3,800 court filings, 250 days of trial, 80 published court decisions and 10 interlocutory appeals.

Days before the preliminary settlement came through in 2009, Ms. Cobell was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her. Despite the deal's size and scope, it proved controversial in Indian country, where plaintiffs were disappointed that they would receive less than $2,000 apiece. The fund to compensate lawyers was nearly $100 million, and Ms. Cobell was to receive $2 million. Court approval was granted in June, but legal appeals have held up payment.

Ms. Cobell continued to advocate acceptance of the $3.4 billion settlement she managed to achieve, and the related legislation President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010.

"What I saw Elouise do is something that anyone familiar with Washington would tell you is impossible," said Mr. Gingold.

In today's Washington, he added, "You couldn't get $3.4 billion to support the Star-Spangled Banner."