Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Native Condition. Discussion »
She will be Remembered
Indian Country was saddened by the news of the death of Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet, on Sunday. Her funeral is today in Browning, Montana at the Browning High School. She will be laid to rest twenty-six miles away at her family's Blacktail Ranch.
A tribal citizen of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe of Montana, she was the great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief. She never finished college, yet with hard work, she trained to be an accountant. She eventually rose to be treasurer of her tribe.
She began to question the Bureau of Indian Affairs officials about what she considered poor record-keeping by the US government. She alleged the improper financial activity went on for over a 100 years and felt hundreds of thousands of American Indians were cheated out of royalty payments.
By the mid 1990s, she moved from Montana to Washington to work on a legal lawsuit.
In 1996 she became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit known as "Cobell v. Babbitt" for inept accounting practices which led to few payments paid to American Indians. The estimated amount of losses was more than $47 billion in royalties from leased reservation lands. The case eventually became known as "Cobell v. Salazar."
Early on, she received a lot of criticism from federal government officials.
"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."
That anger drove her to relentlessly search out the truth behind the improper record-keeping. In the end, she had worked on the case for 15 years.
In December 2009, the Obama administration announced the agreement of $3.4 billion and signed the agreement, known as the Cobell v. Salazar Settlement, a year later. It is the largest class action suit ever agreed to by the US government.
While the case is being appealed, it does not diminish the fact Ms. Cobell fought against odds for something she was convinced was right. Ultimately, up to 500,000 American Indians could benefit from the settlement once it is paid.
This week, numerous tributes have come in from government officials and others, who came to value and respect what Ms. Cobell did for American Indian people. One word seemed to be common thread among the tributes to her memory: JUSTICE.
Ms. Cobell will be remembered as a contemporary warrior, who fought for justice and won for American Indians. Her determination taught us to never give up the fight for social justice for American Indians. Never give up, when you know you are right.
In the ensuing years, the Ms. Cobell's impact and influence in Indian Country will be felt from the reservation to the White House. Her example of fighting for justice was truly admirable and future generations of American Indians will read about her being a warrior, as they do today about Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The difference was: They fought on battlefields in the Great Plains. Ms. Cobell's fight was in the courts, where American Indians fight our wars today.
posted October 22, 2011 9:40 am edt
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