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: You work a full-time job here in Browning. You've served on the state Board of Directors for the Nature Conservancy and helped start the Blackfeet Land Trust. On top of all that, you and your husband own a ranch. You've been involved in so much beyond just the case in the last 14 years, how did you manage to juggle all that?

Cobell: The lawsuit took me away from things I really loved. I eventually had to get off the Nature Conservancy board, which I wanted to stay on forever. It seemed like every time there was something really wonderful that you could really be happy about and go to, there'd be a hearing.

When I won that McArthur Award, they take care of you for five years, and every year they take people on an expedition. The first year I was there, they said, "We're going to Montana. We're going to visit Egg Mountain and the dinosaurs and Elouise." But the next year it was Turkey. I ran and got my passport for the first time and was all excited to go to Turkey, and that's exactly when our trial started. So I felt really sad about that. In the long run, I've really sacrificed a lot for this case.

Independent: Were those personal sacrifices worth this settlement and everything it represents?

Cobell: I really think it is. Where you really get your strength as an older person who's been through something like this is from younger people. I was back in Washington in Sen. [Byron] Dorgan's office. This young man came up to me—he was from an Indian tribe in California—and he said, "I want to have my picture taken with you. In high school, I read about you." In high school he read about me? Now he's graduated from college and he's an attorney? He kept saying I'm his hero and he just kept saying, "I'm going to keep going because I think what you're doing is so important." So it was inspiration I was able to give to younger people, and to a lot of women. You just can't believe how many Indian women write to me and say, "I'm so inspired, because it makes me want to keep doing what I'm doing or makes me want to go into a career." That's been so rewarding. It's so rewarding to hear back from younger people who think that this was a great achievement and it's given them inspiration to go on and change their lives and do what they want to do.

click to enlarge Numerous awards line the walls and shelves of Cobell’s office in Browning. She’s been singled out for excellence for her founding of the Blackfeet National Bank, her work with the Native American Community Development Corporation, and her role in successfully suing the Department of the Interior. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Numerous awards line the walls and shelves of Cobell’s office in Browning. She’s been singled out for excellence for her founding of the Blackfeet National Bank, her work with the Native American Community Development Corporation, and her role in successfully suing the Department of the Interior.

Independent: Is that what you'll take away from all these years of litigation?

Cobell: I learned this from my parents: Make life better for our children. I don't like all the poverty. I don't like houses that have trashy yards and wrecked cars. I don't like what some of our communities have come to, and I just want to make sure that changes for the future. I know a lot of it is driven by poverty, and maybe we can get out of that poverty mode.

Independent: So what's the next step as far as Cobell v. Salazar is concerned?

Cobell: Getting the settlement approved by Congress. That's a big thing. It'll have to be attached to a bill, because I don't think it's big enough to be a standalone bill. Somehow Congress will have to approve it, and they'll have to do it by the end of February. If not, it'll go to the Supreme Court...We kept that door open.

If Congress approves it, then it goes to the judge for a fairness hearing. He'll hear any complaints, and that's what I tell people. If you don't like it, then go to the fairness hearing. Then it'll be approved and we move on.

Independent: What chance do you think the settlement has of passing Congress?

Cobell: Everybody, even [Sen. John] McCain, has said they support the approval of it. I don't see why anyone wouldn't.

Independent: What's next for you?

Cobell: I really want to work on making sure Native American Bank is very successful. And I think after a couple years I want to retire, continue to work on fun stuff that I've always liked to work on. I love living out in the country on our ranch, where I was born and raised, so I want to enjoy that more. I want to see my granddaughter, Olivia, more...And I'd like to spend more time with the Blackfeet Land Trust, because that's really been neglected and we have to raise money for it. It's one of the last pristine pieces of property that has the plants that exist nowhere else on the Rocky Mountain Front...I'd like to work hard there, fundraising to protect more lands and educate more of our young people to respect the land.

Independent: So you're glad to finally pick up where you left off back home?

Cobell: When I leave Washington, I feel like I'm drained, like everyone's taken all the blood out of me. But as soon as you drive into your driveway and you see those mountains, you're puffed up again...you're back to normal and you're human again.

When you're younger, you think, "God, I just need to get away from here. I don't like it. I want to get someplace where the action is and things aren't as hard." I always wanted to live in the cities. I lived in Denver and I loved it. I lived in Seattle and I loved it. I was never going to move back here. But once you come home, you know in your heart this is where you're supposed to be. It's a good feeling to live here at Blackfeet.

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