Who is Elouise Cobell?

My friend Betsy Marston of “Writers on the Range” just wrote a wonderful tribute to Elouise Cobell.

Elouise Cobell was, I am ashamed to say, a new name to me. Maybe I had heard it—I was vaguely aware of the lawsuit that consumed her working life. But I had not remembered it. And now Betsy tells us that Montana will celebrate “Elouise Cobell Day” on November 5.

She writes that Cobell was a Blackfeet tribal member whose Indian name was Yellow Bird Woman; that she established a bank on her reservation when the big bankers would not deal with Tribal people; and that she waged an “almost 20-year struggle to win justice for Native Americans from the U.S. government, which for decades botched the management of natural resources owned by individual tribal members.”

Betsy goes on: “… 13 years ago, Blackfeet Tribal member and banker Elouise Cobell finally won a class-action lawsuit against the government, which settled the case by paying out $3.4 billion to Native American citizens and tribal nations… The case was one of the largest class-action suits in U.S. history, and the presiding judge issued a blistering judgment against the Department of Interior. He called Interior a ‘dinosaur’ agency that allowed ‘outright villainy’ to persist.”

In family experience and as a treasurer for the Tribe, Cobell learned that there was no proper accounting of how much money the federal government realized from “tribal leases for mining, oil and gas, logging, minerals and grazing.” And there was no transparent explanation of how royalties were determined for individual tribal landowners. She wrote letters, went to Washington and confronted Department of the Interior secretaries—who dismissed her or even refused to talk with her.

Five tribes got together and tried to force Senate hearing—they were rebuffed and the cheating went on. The story’s happy ending occurred when “President Barack Obama and the Congress … settled her class action suit in 2009, awarding $1.4 billion to the landowners and $1.7 billion to tribal nations, which still uses some of that money to buy back land.”

Thanks to the State of Montana for reminding us—telling us—about this remarkable woman. She’d been hidden, I imagine, because she lived in Montana and not New York or California; and hers was a Tribal matter, and not a government outrage against white men; and, finally, because she was a woman. We have a limited collective memory-space for women.

But maybe that is changing with the MacArthur Foundation, that gave Cobell a genius grant—she used the proceeds to further her lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs; with Deb Haaland at the Department of the Interior, bringing boarding school abuses to the fore, bringing Natives into high government positions; with women on the Supreme Court and the women of Iran; with the women doctors and writers and co-workers we’ve learned to trust and learn from. With Elouise Cobell; I promise to remember that name.


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