The long road to victory 

After 14 years of litigation, Elouise Cobell recounts the challenges of taking on the United States government in the name of Indian Country.

On Dec. 8, 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia settled one of the largest class-action lawsuits in the nation's history. Cobell v. Salazar was fought for nearly 14 years in federal courts prior to the $3.4 billion settlement, and is now considered the greatest victory people in Indian Country have ever witnessed.

The case, filed against the Department of the Interior, sought compensation for more than a century of mismanagement of Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust accounts. Since passage of the Dawes Severalty Act in 1877, the U.S. government has accepted responsibility for managing millions of dollars accrued from resource development on land held in trust for thousands of individual Indians. Many see the settlement as merely a drop in the bucket compared to the vast sums American Indians are truly owed.

"We still have a long way to go," Sen. John Tester said in an official announcement shortly after the settlement, "but as a member of the Indian Affairs Committee, I'll keep working with folks on the ground to empower Montana's sovereign tribes and make sure the federal government meets its trust responsibilities."

Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, 64, a Montana native and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, first uncovered evidence of account mismanagement by the U.S. Department of the Interior in the early 1990s while serving as treasurer of the Blackfeet Indian Nation. At the time her office was primarily investigating mismanagement of collective tribal trust accounts. But growing concern about the state of IIM accounts and the sums robbed from them over decades prompted Cobell to file a lawsuit in 1996.

The case dragged on for over a decade, with Cobell relying heavily on private donations and a legal team led by Washington, D.C., attorney Keith Harper. Cobell v. Salazer was punctuated by minor victories as well as harsh national criticism. Harper refers to the case as a "long road, a tough road," rife with delays and unique defenses on the part of the U.S. government. Presidential administrations under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to give the situation much attention. Those closest to the case hail President Barack Obama's early interest in the plights of Indian Country, including tours to reservations during his presidential campaign, as a major milestone on the road to settlement.

Cobell has come off publicly as something of a powerhouse over the course of her lawsuit. Part of that reputation stems from her roots as a Montana rancher and the strength of her connection to the Blackfeet. She's the great-great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief, whose refusal to live exclusively on the Blackfeet Reservation launched a manhunt resulting in the 1870 Marias Massacre on the Marias River.

Cobell exhibits that same strain of independence, openly displaying a reluctance to conform to the U.S. government's historical views of Indian Country as a place in need of close federal supervision. She founded Blackfeet National Bank, the first tribally owned national bank in the country, in 1987. Now Cobell runs the Native American Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit affiliate of the Native American Bank.

"Anybody who knows her knows that she has a spine of steel," says Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. "She will speak truth to power without blinking, and she has a profound ability to galvanize people."

The Independent sat down with Cobell at her second-floor office in downtown Browning a month after her historic victory. Surrounded by numerous awards and an impressive collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia—she is an unabashed fan of the King of Rock 'n' Roll—Cobell spoke about the origins of the case, the misperceptions about the victory and, above all, how this is just the beginning of a greater future for her people.

Independent: So how long have you noted problems with the management of Individual Indian Money accounts on the part of the United States government?

Cobell: Forever. We all grew up in our communities, in our families, with people saying they had land and they weren't getting any money. It was just a natural conversation at the dinner table in the evenings, and normally had a lot of relatives and friends and neighbors that were constantly talking about how the government was cheating them. In fact, they've known since the 1800s, when the very first trust was established for individual Indian account holders in 1887, that it was corrupt. In one of the hearings that I had in Congress, [someone mentioned] a newspaper from the 1800s that said, "Indian trust funds in shambles, fraud." So they were reporting the fraud on these trust accounts since the 1800s, and they had a photo of that in one of the hearings.

Independent: But individual Indians had no influence in establishing these trusts, back in the 1800s?

Cobell: It was a trust that was forced on individual Indians. They basically said, "You're all incompetent, you're all stupid. You can't manage your assets so we will manage that land for you, we will collect the money and we will manage it to the highest fiduciary standards." People never had control of their lands, and that was a trust that was forced on the people that's still there today.

Independent: What do you think your chances of pursuing a case like this would have been 100 years ago?

Cobell: If I would have done what I'm doing today back then, I would probably have been dead. The government killed people like me that asked questions, called them renegades. My great, great grandfather [Mountain Chief] was one of those people. He didn't want to conform to staying just on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation because the Blackfeet country was the entire state of Montana. He felt that was wrong. They wanted everyone to stay right here and hand over their firearms. He didn't want to do that. When they had the Baker [or Marias] Massacre back in the 1800s, that's who they were after, Mountain Chief.

click to enlarge “There’s always an iconic figure that represents shifts in history,” says Keith Harper, lead attorney in Cobell v. Salazar. “The person that refuses to sit at the back of the bus, for example. In the issue of the government mismanaging Indian moneys, that figure is definitely Elouise.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • “There’s always an iconic figure that represents shifts in history,” says Keith Harper, lead attorney in Cobell v. Salazar. “The person that refuses to sit at the back of the bus, for example. In the issue of the government mismanaging Indian moneys, that figure is definitely Elouise.”

I'm sure that anybody who challenged the way we challenged, there would have been hell to pay. Fear, I think, was a big thing for a lot of the Indian people, why they didn't take it on earlier. And they didn't have money to sue. That's why it went on for so long—100-plus years before somebody filed a lawsuit.

Independent: So, in essence, you're continuing what Mountain Chief started?

Cobell: I would say so. It's accountability, and I think the entire thing is making the United States government accountable to Indian people. They said when they did the Allotment Act that they would manage our trust land and moneys to the highest fiduciary standards. Where did that get us? They got away with never having to audit, for 100-plus years...I would say we have to carry on a lot from where our ancestors at one point in time felt they were free and part of this land, and not continue to always live by somebody else's standards. Maybe we should start living by our own standards.

Independent: When you first entertained the thought of this lawsuit and started gathering steam toward litigation, did you realize how big an undertaking it would be?

Cobell: Absolutely not. How we can get justice working with the different branches [of government] and their separations of power—I really believed in that. Gosh, if you could only let the president know. If you could get the attention of the president. I was such a pollyanna.

Independent: Surely having served as treasurer for the Blackfeet for 13 years, you had some idea of the scale of mismanagement?

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