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.

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Independent: Over the past 14 years, you've become something of a folk hero in Indian Country. Did you sense that reputation materialize during the lawsuit?

Cobell: There's a lot that stems from not just fighting for justice, but realizing what capacities have to be built into your community so that the government doesn't get away with this, so you don't have to have a Cobell v. whomever. This has really pushed me toward the work I do in community development. I'm the executive director of Native American Community Development Corporation...What we do is really build the capacities of our communities to access financial abilities as far as credit and capital. By having the government managing our assets, we were never able to do that. You could own 320 acres of land and have 20 oil wells pumping on it, and you couldn't get a loan to send your kids to college. What's wrong with that picture?...What I want out of this lawsuit is that history does not repeat itself, that we become smart enough as individual Indians to hold that government accountable if they're going to continue to manage our trust assets...One of these days, we need to say, "Department of Interior, go take a hike. We're going to manage all our own assets." If we allow them to manage as they have in the past, we won't end up with any assets. We'll be gone as a people.

Independent: Your role as lead plaintiff in this case also came with a degree of unpopularity. What criticisms have you heard over the last 14 years?

Cobell: I remember the older people were so accustomed to Indian agents, doing everything the Indian agents wanted. There was one old guy—I was in this big meeting out in the state of Washington—and he says, "You leave the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] alone. The BIA has done nothing." And I said, "So, is that why billions of dollars are missing from our trust accounts?" There were certain things that you had to take on like that, which I didn't mind. I really didn't mind. I kept thinking to myself, "What can they do to you? The only thing they can do to you is kill you. So what the hell, I'll go for it."

click to enlarge Elouise Cobell recounts her 14-year legal battle against the U.S. Department of the Interior one month after landing a $3.4 billion settlement. Cobell, a former treasurer for the Blackfeet Tribe, sued the department over mismanagement of accounts held in trust for individual Indians in the country. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Elouise Cobell recounts her 14-year legal battle against the U.S. Department of the Interior one month after landing a $3.4 billion settlement. Cobell, a former treasurer for the Blackfeet Tribe, sued the department over mismanagement of accounts held in trust for individual Indians in the country.

The divide and conquer thing was a dangerous situation to be in, but the government has used that very effectively in Indian Country to win. I really didn't take the negatives that seriously. The government did a lot of retaliation against me personally...A lot of lies the government's told. I've been to situations where I'm supposed to speak, and the government's said, "If she speaks, we can't provide the funding for this conference." They can make it hard on you. My income taxes have been audited every year to a degree no one can believe.

Independent: Was there ever a point when you lost faith in what you were doing?

Cobell: When the Clinton administration came in, I really breathed a sigh of relief. I thought, "This is going to be so easy now, because all I have to do is get to the secretary and things will change." Then it was complete stonewall. [Interior] Secretary [Bruce] Babbitt wouldn't even meet with me. It just became harder and harder.

Independent: How did you deal with those moments?

Cobell: There are times that you just have to pray. Fortunately I have a 27-mile drive from here to my home. After they say something like "You can't speak" or "You're stupid," you'd think, "Why did I do this?" I'd be driving and I'd look over at Ghost Ridge, out there at Old Agency, where all those people starved to death during Starvation Winter. They didn't get their rations because the government hoarded their rations, and over 500 people starved to death. They just opened up these big old pits and covered them up. I'd look over there and I'd think, "Oh my God, why do you ever feel sorry for yourself? What would it be like to be a mother and have your children starving with you and dying?" Just like that you'd snap out of it and go, "I'm going to fight them till the end."

Independent: Can you be more specific about those challenges?

Cobell: When I filed this case, I really needed money. I only had $675,000 and I knew that I needed at least $3 million to start out and I was projecting we could have the government settle in three years. I had proposals out to all the foundations that have social justice focuses, then all of a sudden in 1997 I won that [John D. and Catherine T.] McArthur Genius Award. The president of the Lannan Foundation was reading the story in the New York Times and I was the lead-in to the story. So he called his office in Santa Fe and said, "Do you know this Blackfeet woman that won the McArthur Genius Award," and she said, "No, but I just read one of the most dynamite proposals that was rejected by us from her." She read the proposal that was rejected and he said, "Pack your bags. We're going to Browning, Montana." ...We met up in East Glacier at a little café and he asked, "How much money do you need?" And I just was shaking, because I didn't know what to ask for. I said, "A million dollars? I could use a million dollars." He said okay. They spent I don't know how long talking about the case, and by the time they reached the Great Falls airport he said, "We decided we're going to give you $1.5 million." By the time they got back to their trustees and had a meeting, they called me back and said, "We're going to give you $2 million."

click to enlarge Ken Salazar was one of four secretaries of the Interior to face off against Cobell in federal court. The parties reached a $3.4 billion settlement on Dec. 8, under pressure from President Barack Obama to end the lengthy dispute. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE U.S. SENATE COMMITTEE ON INDIAN AFFAIRS
  • Photo courtesy of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
  • Ken Salazar was one of four secretaries of the Interior to face off against Cobell in federal court. The parties reached a $3.4 billion settlement on Dec. 8, under pressure from President Barack Obama to end the lengthy dispute.

Independent: You've been bouncing between Washington, D.C., and Browning, Montana, for 14 years now. How difficult has all that travel been on your life back here?

Cobell: Personally, we've gone through some really tough times. My husband [Alvin] got really sick in 2004 and almost died. He had diabetes really bad, lost his leg below the knee, then got very, very sick and had to be on dialysis. The only thing that was going to save him was a new kidney, so I gave him one of my kidneys in 2004. That was when this lawsuit was going on full-blast. But it was just like the lawsuit; you have to do what you have to do. If you want him to live, then you have to do it. And it saved his life, because it made him eligible for a pancreas transplant in 2006. Now he has no more diabetes. He's healthier than I am, gets around really good. But those were really trying times, and trying to juggle one of the largest class-action lawsuits in history with that was really tough.

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