Elouise Cobell took personally the death of each American Indian who never saw a dime in the U.S. government’s $3.4 billion settlement in a long battle over mismanaged land royalties, viewing each passing as another person who would never know justice.
Now she is among those who won’t witness the final outcome after dedicating more than 15 years of her life to seeing through the largest government class-action settlement in U.S. history.
Cobell died Sunday at a Great Falls hospital of complications from cancer at age 65. The Blackfeet woman from Browning was the driving force that guided the lawsuit through seemingly endless court proceedings and political bickering on Capitol Hill.
Even though she was successful at overcoming those obstacles — a judge approved the $3.4 billion settlement earlier this year — the deal faces still another legal hurdle.
Several potential members of the class-action lawsuit have filed appeals in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, promising to stretch the case into at least next year. Each has a different reason for challenging the deal, including allegations that the lead plaintiffs abandoned the true aim of the lawsuit — to finally have the government account for how much money was actually lost — in exchange for a cash settlement from which they would benefit the most.
Dennis Gingold, the attorney Cobell has worked with since the lawsuit was filed in 1996, said individual Indians have lost their greatest champion. But he hopes her death will unite people and get the settlement money to the estimated 500,000 beneficiaries before too many more die.
“Over the years, many elders and many sick class members have died. Elouise had been very concerned about that. That is why she agreed to the settlement,” Gingold said. “Unfortunately, the settlement is two years old, and class members continue to die. When we told the court that time is of the essence, it was not hyperbole.”
Thousands of potential beneficiaries across the nation died during the 14-year legal battle and subsequent negotiations in Congress that took an additional year. To Cobell, each death stung.
“We’ve lost three people in the last week here in the Blackfeet (Reservation in northwestern Montana) who were beneficiaries to this settlement, and it hurts,” Cobell told The Associated Press back in November after the Senate temporarily blocked the deal.
Former Senate Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said there would have been no settlement without Cobell and her sheer force of will.
“It’s a cruel irony that the woman who led the charge here all of those years, does not live now to see the benefits,” Dorgan said. “Despite that, I know she had to feel a great sense of accomplishment with what she did.”
The claims of those who died have been taken up by their heirs — as it will be with Cobell’s heirs — and she took comfort in that, she said in an earlier interview.
“It’s mainly their children or their grandchildren that benefit, which is fine,” Cobell said in May 2010. “One thing that I’ve heard all the time that I’ve been working on this — letters after letters after letters — is that they want something for their grandchildren.”
Cobell, a great-granddaughter of the famous leader Mountain Chief, grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation. Her Indian name was Yellow Bird Woman.
Among her many notable accomplishments, Cobell served as the Blackfeet Nation’s treasurer for 13 years and in 1987 helped found the first U.S. bank owned by a tribe, now the Native American Bank.
But she is best known as the lead plaintiff in the trust case that spanned three presidential administrations. She won a $300,000 “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1997 and used most of the money to help fund the lawsuit.
Cobell said she had heard stories since she was a child of how the government shortchanged Native Americans with accounts for royalties from their land that was leased for resource development or farming.
She became outraged when she actually started digging into how much money the government had squandered that belonged to Blackfeet people who were living in dire poverty.
She realized the amount mismanaged since the 1880s could be hundreds of billions of dollars. She said she tried for years working with two U.S. government administrations to resolve the dispute in the early 1990s, then decided to sue with four other Native Americans as plaintiffs when no progress was made.
The government dug in. Over the next 14 years, there were more than 3,600 court filings, 220 days of trial, 80 published court decisions and 10 appeals until the 2009 breakthrough.
Under the settlement, $1.4 billion would go to individual Indian account holders. Some $2 billion would be used by the government to buy up fractionated Indian lands from individual owners willing to sell, and then turn those lands over to tribes. Another $60 million would be used for a scholarship fund for young Indians.
Congress approved the deal and President Barack Obama signed it in December 2010, a year after it was first proposed. U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan approved the settlement in June, calling Cobell a hero who has “accomplished more for individual Native Americans than any other individual I can think of in recent history.”
Just a few weeks before those words, Cobell discovered she had cancer. She traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for surgery.
Cobell grew sicker, dashing her hopes to put the lawsuit behind her and work full time teaching young Indian adults how to manage their money and assets.
She said she wanted to prepare the next generation in hopes they would continue her work.
“Maybe one of these days, they won’t even think about me. They’ll just keep going and say ‘This is because I did it,’ ” Cobell said in May 2010. “I think if young people pick up the torch and continue to carry the torch that this will never happen to us again.”