Remembering and Honoring Elouise Cobell
By Pat Powers on 10/20/2011 @ 12:25 PM
A guest post by Pat Powers, FCNL's lobbyist on Native American affairs from 2003 until 2008
On the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC, a far-less famous hero died in Montana. She too--against impossible odds--had secured a measure of justice for her people. As her lawyer Keith Harper (Cherokee) said: “With any moment of progressive social change, there is always an iconic figure who will define that movement—the person who refused to get to the back of the bus. For Indian people, for this important cause, for this indelible change, that person was Elouise Cobell.” The cause was holding the federal government accountable for trust land and resource assets it controls and getting back billions of Indian people’s own money.
Elouise Cobell was a resolute but atypical activist. She never went to jail for the cause. She wore suits when she testified in court and before Congress. She tried to work within the system in a firm but civil manner, despite being scorned by most government officials. She was a MacArthur genius award winner who lived on the Blackfeet reservation. She challenged--in the press and in the courtroom--a century old policy that kept land-rich Indian families dirt-poor. Ultimately, she also had to persuade the executive and legislative branches of government to fulfill trust responsibilities. Few advocates have to work on so many fronts simultaneously.
She and fellow Indian leaders proved gross mismanagement of the Individual Indian trust. The federal appeals court found that the U.S. had “flagrantly and repeatedly breached its fiduciary obligations.” After 15 years, the Obama administration arranged a $3.4 billion settlement and finally Congress approved it. Judge Hogan who presided over the final phase of the landmark case said Elouise Cobell as the lead plaintiff had shown “unusual effort and courage” in leading the lawsuit. (It should be said that not all Native Americans are happy about the settlement.)
I write this commemoration as a former Native American affairs advocate at FCNL who watched Elouise Cobell in action. For five years, we monitored the federal Cobell class action case against the Department of Interior and lobbied Congress to provide financial redress for half-a-million individual Indians. Our website was replete with information to provide community education. We submitted white papers to Interior. We met with the Office of the Special Trustee. We published at least a dozen articles and updates about the case in our Indian Report newsletter. The Cobell team appreciated FCNL’s constant and very public support.
I first read about Elouise Cobell in a 2001 Parade Magazine feature story entitled “The Broken Promise.” In the cover picture, she is wearing blue jeans (she was a rancher as well as a banker). A few years later, I included information about her case in a college textbook I was writing. By the time I started at FCNL, I knew faith groups had to convince people that the citizenry was involved too, not just Indians. It was more than a matter of conscience. For decades, much of the Indian land royalty money that was not distributed to them went into the U.S. treasury-- indirectly benefiting the rest of us. If we could not be fair in this instance when would Indians ever receive justice?
During the past seven years, there have been so many ups and downs emotionally. At many points, it seemed as if victory was imminent. I remember running around the FCNL office celebrating, only to have a Native American staff member of Congress remind me not to get my hopes too high. “Look what has happened in the past,” he said, remembering the dozens of field hearings he had conducted to no avail. It was an emotional roller coaster. Once I watched Elouise Cobell standing, quite patiently, in a corridor at the federal court house and yet her facial expression seemed to say: will it never be through?
My most vivid memory is of an incident that occurred during a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing. Senator John McCain who was chair of the committee launched into a tirade against Elouise Cobell who was sitting at the table before him ready to testify. He was angry about a statement she had made that appeared in a local newspaper in her state. He became so irate that he left the room and never returned. When the hearing resumed, Elouise Cobell started her remarks by saying, “I’m not the bad guy here.”
With tempers cooled and results achieved, legislative leaders had started the process for Elouise Cobell to receive a Congressional Gold Metal. Her funeral will be Saturday.
Our Native American Issues Page
Obituary and photograph in The New York Times
"Elouise Cobell Walks On" on the Indian Country Media Network "
Indian Land Trust Abuse and the Woman Who Finally Got the U.S. to Pay Up." in the Christian Science Monitor
Senator Daniel Akaka, Chair of Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
Senator Max Bachus, Montana
LA Times Obituary: Eloise Cobell dies at 65, Native American activist