It is the rare person who gets to be enshrined in the pantheon of heroes. I remember the Herblock cartoon that came out the day after Dwight Eisenhower died. It showed acres of white crosses at Arlington National Cemetery, with the caption "Pass the word, it's Ike."
Across Indian Country this week, from Window Rock to White Shield to Lame Deer, the "Indian telegraph" hummed with a similar message: "Pass the word, it's Elouise."
Elouise Cobell, a warrior in every sense of the word—she showed devotion, courage and a willingness to sacrifice her life and dreams for the good of the tribe—died of cancer Oct. 16, at the age of 65. She finally met an adversary that she could not conquer.
This untimely dénouement came just months after her heart, mind and spirit were declared the victors in a 15-year-long battle with the most formidable foe of all—the federal government. Cobell's remarkable saga started in 1994, when she discovered suspicious irregularities in her mineral royalty reports. Royalties owed to her and members of her family by the federal government were not showing up as credits in their annual statements. As she soon discovered, she was not alone.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in 1996, she detailed her shocking discovery: For 100 years, the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their many agents in the extractive industries had been stealing from the poor and giving to the rich at the expense of Cobell and her 375,000 Indian co-plaintiffs, defrauding them of mineral royalties worth $50 billion, according to Price-Waterhouse's best guestimate.
The irregularity she found in her credit statement had turned into a big deal indeed.
In 2011, she won the battle and settled for $3.4 billion. She didn't get the whole enchilada, but she and her co-plaintiffs got a healthy piece of it. And they had the satisfaction of knowing they'd won the largest class-action lawsuit ever brought against the federal government—not bad for a middle-aged community organizer and banker from Browning, Mont., who spent much of her life on the skinny side of thin, wondering how she was going to feed her kids, buy retreads for her truck or patch the roof over her kitchen before the snow flew.
Tributes to Elouise Cobell have been pouring in from every quarter. She's getting far more attention from the national media in death than she ever got from them during her life. All of the big outlets have published glowing tributes, and the lawsuit will go down in history. But I wonder what she would think about all of this glory, given the brush-off she received from the national press for over a decade. Probably, she'd just shrug and chuckle.
Over the years I wrote dozens of stories about her long-lasting fight against the Interior Department, but no East Coast editor ever saw it as a story worth sharing. Perhaps the reason they ignored her had something to do with why she brought the lawsuit in the first place: She wanted to shine a bright light into the untidy corners of democracy in America.
Cobell's investigation into the mineral royalty accounts demonstrated once again that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have usually been achieved in mainstream society by denying those so-called "unalienable rights" to Indians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Chinese-Americans and others who somehow do not fit in.
I have no idea what words her family members will carve on Elouise Cobell's tombstone. I hope it's something endearing and funny and irrepressible, like the woman herself. Something like "See you all real soon."
Personally, I think a fitting epitaph was written eight years ago by Royce Lamberth, a conservative west Texas judge appointed to the federal bench by the first President Bush. He made the first big ruling in favor of Cobell and plaintiffs, in 2003.
"Alas," he wrote in words you will probably never hear again from a federal judge, "our modern Interior Department has time and again demonstrated that it is a dinosaur—the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago...For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilations, policy programs and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians are merely the echoes of a horrible, bigoted government-past that has been sanitized by the good deeds of more recent history, this case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few."
Yes, that would do it nicely. Elouise Cobell, rest in peace.
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the op-ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of American's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory.