Montana State University

Spring 2009

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Mountains and Minds

Standing Strong April 27, 2009 by Anne Pettinger • Published 04/27/09

Elouise Cobell's epic battle against the government for Indian rights
I swear we will fight until we get a victory. We might have to go all the way to the Supreme Court, but we'll do it. --Elouise Cobell
"I swear we will fight until we get a victory. We might have to go all the way to the Supreme Court, but we'll do it." --Elouise Cobell
It's a chilly day in Browning, with 75 mph gusts of wind ripping across the plains, creating funnels of snow that swirl across the icy highway.

Just off the road, Elouise Cobell plants her feet firmly on the soil and stares into the gale at the distant white peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front that emerge from the plains. The wind is whipping hard enough to topple semitrucks just down the road on U.S. Highway 2, but Cobell appears unfazed. She breaks into a small smile.

"This is nothing," she says quietly of the storm. And it's true. Cobell has faced more.

For more than 13 years, Cobell has been leading one of the largest class-action lawsuits ever filed against the United States government, seeking restitution of revenues owed from mining, logging and other development on millions of acres of Indian land held in trust across the nation.

Cobell filed the suit, Cobell v. Salazar (formerly Kempthorne, Norton and Babbitt, the defendant changing with the names of evolving U.S. Secretaries of Interior), on behalf of 500,000 Indians, both living and dead. The lawsuit alleges the government never created a system to balance the accounts or tracked whether Indians were being paid royalties due them.

In 1999, an appeals court judge ruled that the United States had breached its trust duties, resulting in a series of appeals by the government. Last August, a federal judge ruled that Native landowners should receive a settlement award of no more than $455 million, an amount far less than the $47 billion Cobell sought on behalf of Native landowners. Both sides have filed appeals with the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

With the case seemingly stretching on indefinitely as the settlement ruling goes through appeals, Cobell, now 63, has vowed to continue her fight for justice.

"After 13 years, it pretty much sets the record that we're not giving up," said Cobell, who attended Montana State University and has an honorary doctorate from the institution. "We're holding on for our grandchildren because we have to change this horrible mess."

The suit largely defines Cobell's life. She said she has raised more than $17 million to fund it. She travels extensively to speak about it, frequently paying her own travel expenses and spending more time on the road than at home with her husband, Alvin Cobell.

Despite the long struggle, Cobell says there has been only one moment throughout the entire case when she considered giving up. That was the June weekend in 1996 when she and her attorneys filed the lawsuit in Washington, D.C.

"I walked up to the (top) of the Lincoln Memorial, and I looked down, and I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm suing the United States government!' I really got scared. I just got goose bumps all over.

"I thought, 'What are they going to do to me? What are they going to do to my family? What are they going to do to other Indian people.?' It was a very scary feeling... I dashed back to my hotel room, and I called a friend, and I said, 'You know what, I can't do this. I'm too scared.' And my friend told me, 'If you don't do it, who will?' And I just stopped and I thought about that. And I said to myself, 'That's right.'"

Fueled by a sense of injustice

Cobell said she has drawn strength from many sources during her battle.

"Sometimes when you come back from places (like Washington) you feel like a failure," Cobell said. "But you look toward the mountains and get all energized again and think, 'I'm gonna give 'em hell again. They're not gonna get the best of me.' It kind of pumps you up."

Cobell also gleans power from her conviction that the government must be held accountable for its actions.

As a girl growing up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Cobell learned the government was supposed to pay out money to the owners of the private lands held in trust for American Indians since 1887 and managed by the Department of the Interior. But she noticed government checks for farming, grazing and timber-cutting on her family's land sometimes arrived, but often didn't.

Cobell helped establish the Blackfeet National Bank in Browning. Cobell helped establish a bank in Browning.
Cobell helped establish the Blackfeet National Bank in Browning. Cobell helped establish a bank in Browning.

She recognized many of the problems with the government accounting of the Indian trust accounts when she served as treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation for 13 years.

"Just looking at them with an accountant's view made me know there was something seriously wrong," she said.

Originally, Cobell thought if she could get the attention of the right person in Washington, the errors with the trust accounts would simply be fixed.

"I thought, 'All I have to do is get to the president. All I have to do is just let (the government) know what horrible things have happened.then this will all be over with.'"

But Cobell said it was impossible to get an audience. After her numerous requests for meetings with government officials were rejected, Cobell started to think the government was hiding something.

Convinced the government was acting dishonestly, Cobell said she had no choice but to file the suit.

"I realized that there was something fraudulent that was happening," she said.

"What drives me is justice," Cobell added. "It's like we've gotten so comfortable in our lives, we don't really try to force justice."

Pat Williams, the former U.S. Representative from Montana who witnessed much of Cobell's fight from a front-row seat in Congress, describes Cobell's motivation differently.

"Elouise's determination in this is fueled by her anger toward inequity," Williams said. "That kind of burning frustration can almost turn into a rage for some people. She's been able to funnel that into something productive.

"It's very difficult to find another one-person pursuit of this magnitude that has gotten this close to success," said Williams, who helped secure several Congressional hearings about the case. "There are not many instances in American history where one person has fought city hall as successfully as she has."

The work certainly hasn't been easy; Cobell says she has faced plenty of tough times with the case. What has been especially disheartening to Cobell is to listen to politicians make promises, she said, only to be disappointed, time and again, when they break them.

"Who really cares?" she said. "Who cares about this? I don't know if we ever get to somebody that's real and caring about the lives of Indian people."

But Williams and others involved say it's not that the government is trying to keep money from Indians. Rather, records of marriages, divorces and land sales haven't been recorded well enough on the reservations for the Interior Department to know how much money to pay out to whom.

In fact, individual Indians didn't keep very good records, Williams said. "As I examined the issue, I found more than one culprit."

Cobell contests that assessment.

"I moved away from trusting government," she said. "Congress has been ineffective on this issue. They're like, 'If you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back.' I think the fact that Indian people are not the richest people in the world, and they don't carry a lot of votes, nobody gives a damn."

Born to be a warrior

Cobell's unwillingness to give up on the case may be attributed, at least in part, to her parents. She said the values they instilled in her are ones that have stuck with her throughout the lawsuit.

"They always tried to teach us-my brothers and sisters and me-to be strong," Cobell said. "To be leaders, and to always be very proud of who we were . our Indian culture was very rich."

One of nine children, Cobell grew up near Browning, a great-granddaughter of the warrior Mountain Chief, the last hereditary leader of the Blackfeet. She went to a one-room country school for much of her elementary school years, and then graduated with a class of about 30 kids from Valier High School.

Some of Cobell's early teachers made a lasting impression on her. One, she remembered, ordered a copy of The New York Times for her students, which opened a new world for Cobell.

"I'd read The New York Times and think, 'My God, this stuff is happening in other parts of the country!' Then I'd wonder, 'Will I ever get to New York City or Washington, D.C.?'"

After high school, Cobell graduated from Great Falls Business College and then attended MSU for a year before leaving to be close to her dying mother. Still eager to see other parts of the country, she lived and worked in business administration and accounting in Denver and Seattle before she and her husband, also a member of the Blackfeet Nation, decided to move back to the reservation.

"When we went to my parents' ranch and took (it) over, the real important stuff started hitting home, like the landscapes and the importance of community," Cobell said.

And since she returned to the Browning area, Cobell has worked hard to make her community a better place.

In 1987, she helped launch the Blackfeet National Bank in Browning, the first Indian-owned financial institution in the country. In 1994, when Browning was selected to participate in the Rural Development and Community Foundation Initiative, Cobell developed activities that promoted the viability and sustainability of the community with the Blackfeet Recycling Center, endowment activities and the student-run "Mini Bank" in the local middle school. In 1997, Cobell was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, often called the "genius grant," and applied her $300,000 award, given with no strings attached, to the lawsuit expenses.

More recently, Cobell has served as executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp., a nonprofit affiliate of Native American Bank. In concert with The Nature Conservancy, she also has worked to protect land on the Blackfeet Reservation from development.

"I am convinced you can only achieve independence through economic sovereignty," Cobell said. "That's why it's so important to have financial institutions (like the Native American Bank) and continue to help students understand the finance world.

"We've got to be players in our lives," she added. "We cannot have the government running our lives . I am tired of politicians running my life and managing my money. I don't want that to happen anymore."

Cobell recently has been quoted that she is happy that the Obama administration appears to be taking a positive view of the case. And during testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee this spring, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he "will try to bring (the case) to conclusion."

If and when the settlement money from Cobell v. Salazar comes through, Cobell imagines a new beginning for the members of Indian communities.

"I think that Indian communities would have an opportunity for a really big change," she said. "Individual Indians that are living in poverty, living in shacks, could actually have control of their assets. They could probably be living in mansions, because a lot of them are sitting on oil wells that are pumping constantly."

While Cobell v. Salazar is on appeal before a panel of three judges, Cobell looks forward to the day when she can put the lawsuit past her.

"I always tell people that one of these days, when this is all over, I'll probably raise chickens and grow a garden," Cobell said. She's also eager to spend more time with her family, including her son, Turk, who lives out of state with his wife and Cobell's first grandchild. But Cobell concedes that the fight could go on for a long time.

"I swear I will fight until we get a victory," she said. "We might have to go all the way to the Supreme Court, but we'll do it.

"We've got to make the system work. I have to make it work for Indian people, because their lives depend on it."

Photo by Stephen Hunts

Photo by Stephen Hunts