In 1996, Elouise Cobell, whose Blackfeet name was “Yellow Bird Woman,” filed the historic and largest class-action lawsuit alleging that the federal government had mismanaged the trust funds of more than 500,000 American Indians. After a long court battle, Cobell and her lawyers agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement in December 2009, that Congress ratified in December of 2010. Cobell passed away in 2011.
See Related: Elouise Cobell, 65, Walks On
Since her passing, film producer and director Melinda Janko has worked to create a 75-minute documentary 100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice, on the life and achievements of Cobell. The film has been screened in Los Angeles and in New York and is making a run for an Academy Award. The film, which was officially released in August, was also screened last Friday, October 21st at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.
Elouise Cobell - Photo: Courtesy of Fire in the Belly Productions
Acclaimed Cherokee actor Wes Studi (Avatar, Geronimo, Dances with Wolves) was at the screening, along with Muscogee Creek actor Richard Ray Whitman (Barking Water, Winter in the Blood). Whitman had one of the lead roles in a film called Neither Wolf Nor Dog, which was screened immediately after 100 Years at the Center for Contemporary Arts on Old Pecos Trail.
Wes Studi and other guests at the Santa Fe premiere of 100 Years - Photo: Courtesy Angela Baldwin
“Elouise Cobell’s story is a once-in-a-lifetime story. She’s going to go down in the history books,” said Janko, the producer and director. “She’s going to go down right next to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and all the people who fought the good fight. I feel honored to give this film to the world as a tribute to her.
“I thought the film had to go out into the world because of this grave injustice by the U.S. government,” added Janko, who began working on the project in 1996. “Once I read about it, I couldn’t look the other way. So even though I didn’t know anybody in Indian Country and I had never set foot on a reservation, I just decided I was going to bring the film to the world. The film is tremendously important because Elouise is a modern-day hero.”
“I feel embarrassed. I feel ashamed of our government,” said Brad Stoddard, a non-tribal member and film and video producer/director who owns Stoddard Communications based in Corrales, NM. “I’m ashamed of it. I know these things have been going on here on this continent for 500 years. The government is stealing land and resources and not living up to their treaty obligations. They’re breaking their own laws.”
Janko says people from coast to coast did not know about this story.
“Everywhere I traveled I asked people, ‘Do you know about the Cobell case, the largest case in history against the U.S. government?’ and nine times out of 10, people would say no. They would respond, ‘Aren’t those Indians all rich now?’ There’s a double injustice. There’s a public relations problem that Indian Country has because (non-Indian) people in this country do not realize that 1-in-3 Native people still live in poverty.
“I’m interested in these types of issues. I wanted to learn more,” said Stoddard about why he attended the screening. “I have several friends who are part of the Cobell settlement and in the last 10 or 15 years they have talked to me about what was happening, but I never really knew the whole story. You really get some insight about Elouise and where’s she was coming from.”
“My heart hurt because I felt like I could not believe that this was going on today,” said Janko, who pointed out Cobell died of cancer in 2011, before any of the money was distributed. “I thought, ‘My gosh, Native people have oil wells that are pumping on their lands 24/7 and they have no running water and no electricity. I was so appalled by that. I was concerned that this case would never be settled. That’s why I wanted to make people aware of the injustice.
Elouise Cobell in the streets of Washington D.C. - Photos: Courtesy Fire in the Belly Productions
“She is a warrior woman. She is a survivor. She is a fighter. She is everything that I can think of in a hero. She inspired me during this journey that was 14 years from concept to completion. Her mantra was, ‘the stars are all aligned for Indian people to get justice.’ That’s what led her to continue her fight.”
For more information visit: www.100yearsthemovie.com