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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Cobell: I started working on this with several other financial officers from other tribes—when I was working on the tribal trust accounts—because we knew there was a big mess there. It was through many hearings that a congressman out of Oklahoma who was the real champion in starting this, [Rep. Mike] Synar, began holding hearings and bringing the government in and questioning them on the accounting. He held his ground, and it was through that process that we got started. Then, after we had determined someone was listening, [Rep. Sidney] Yates, who was in charge of the appropriations committee back in the '80s, approved appropriations for the Department of the Interior to reconcile and certify all the trust accounts. Not only the tribal trust accounts, but the individual trust accounts. Congressman Synar put four of us on an ad-hoc committee from Indian Country. So we got to be in the room when they contracted a huge accounting firm to look at these accounts. Every time they reported back, we got to hear what they said and that really empowered us.

Independent: How did your family and friends react when you decided to take on the government?

Cobell: I don't even think they really understood what the effects would be. "Oh, yeah, I'll sue the government." I think every other Indian always says that, but a lot of people don't go through with it. I think in this situation a lot of private people thought, "How's she going to sue the government?" They underestimated what would happen.

Independent: As the case progressed, did anyone believe you had a shot at winning?

Cobell: I don't think a lot of Indian people across the country would think we'd ever have a victory. I used to give these talks after we'd win a great big portion of this case, like in 1999 when the judge said the Department of the Interior was in breach of trust and all the systems were broken and had to be fixed. That was a huge victory. You'd go out to Indian Country and tell people about it and they'd go, "Yeah, yeah, ho hum." I'd go, "What's wrong with winning? Can't you understand what a victory is? You're so used to losing that you don't even understand what it's like to win."

Independent: So how did you convince yourself that you could win?

Cobell: I knew I was right. I really knew I was right, just from being the tribal treasurer and watching how they managed the tribal trust accounts. Money was missing from those accounts and they couldn't reconcile them. I wasn't a super intelligent person. Anybody could just watch the accounts and see that money was going out of them. I wasn't taking it out, and I was the treasurer. So who was taking it out? I knew we were right. And I was just very fortunate to get a legal team...that understood that this was a financial issue, not an Indian issue. They stole money.

I was just thinking of reading you a little note I got yesterday: "I wanted to congratulate you on your recent victory. I just happened to be listening to NPR the day they announced it. I got very emotional about the whole thing"—and these are non-Indians, by the way—"During the '40s and '50s, our family lived at Fort Washakie, and I vividly remember all the oil trucks that passed by our house coming from the oil fields at the north end of the reservation. Members of the tribe would get a small per capita yearly, but it was nothing compared to what they were owed. I so remember the poverty on that reservation and how so much suffering could have been prevented if the government and the oil companies had been fair and honest. I can just imagine how muddled those records were when your attorney was trying to untangle them. My dad, Charles Spencer, was later superintendent up at Browning Agency, and although I am 10 years older than you I am familiar with your family names."

Independent: Just from talking to people locally in the past month, do you think people have a grasp of what this settlement means?

Cobell: Nobody gets it, and Montana is bad for it. My husband was down in Valier or something and someone said, "Tell your wife congratulations, I'm really proud of her. But we don't agree because this is our taxpayers' money that's going back to individual Indians." That's not true. It's our money. It's our own money that they stole from us. And people still think that Indians get government checks. Well, those checks are for the oil and gas and timber...from their own land. People in Montana are the hardest to educate.

I just got off the phone with a lawyer from New Mexico that has worked with tribes for a number of years...He just called to congratulate me, and said, "I hope you understand, Elouise, this is one of the largest victories Indians have ever had in the history of Indian relationships with the government." It is. It's one of the largest, ever, and people just don't get it.

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