FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Raised on the vast, remote Blackfeet Indian Nation of Montana, it was not likely the great-granddaughter of legendary Indian leader Mountain Chief would become a friend of the San Diego filmmaker who until four years ago could not recall setting foot on an American Indian reservation.
But they have, indeed, become both friends and allies: Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in a massive class action lawsuit over theDepartment of the Interior's mismanagement of billions of dollars in trust payments owed to more than 500,000 American Indians; and Melinda Janko, president of Fire in the Belly Productions, which is filming a documentary on the landmark case.
The women hope ''Broken Promises: Indian Trust'' will educate the public about the largest class action lawsuit ever waged against the U.S. government. The film depicts some of the greatest injustices perpetrated against Indian people, and the courageous woman seeking justice for Native America.
''I was looking for a story to tell when I read about the Cobell [v . Kempthorne] case in Mother Jones magazine, March 2002,'' Janko recalled. ''I thought I was reading it wrong. How could this be happening today? I was appalled.''
Janko began doing research into the case, which stems from the Dawes Act of 1887 and allotment of Indian lands by the federal government. It took eight months to set up a meeting with Cobell, a focused woman with a hectic schedule.
''She [Cobell] kept telling me, 'No, no, no, no,''' Janko said, hesitant that a film would generate attention on her and not the case. Janko wouldn't take ''no'' for an answer. ''Every time I turned around, there was Melinda,'' Cobell said. ''Melinda reminds me a lot of me.''
Anthony Pico, former chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians of Alpine, Calif., and a friend of Janko's, went a bit further.
''Native people have certain belief systems that most non-Indians don't have. I firmly believe Melinda has been reincarnated from an old soul, perhaps Native American, and she doesn't really know what's happened and what's driven her to do this,'' Pico said of the unlikely corroboration between the Native leader and Janko.
''Melinda has the compassion and the passion. And she apparently has the knowledge to make films. And she's somehow evolved to this place and this task; driven, I believe, by the souls of the past. Most Native Americans living on the reservation would understand what I'm saying.''
Cobell eventually agreed to work with Janko in making the film. Cobell, Janko and their supporters hope the documentary generates public and political support for the 12-year-old legal battle Cobell has waged on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of largely impoverished Natives defrauded by the federal government out of billions of dollars in oil, gas, timber and grazing lease payments.
''I really want to use [the film] as a tool to educate the public, politicians, Indian people and others; to help them understand what a fight it has been to make the federal government accountable,'' Cobell said. ''We have to get the message out. I hope the film gets done quickly.''
A four-minute trailer of the film depicting individual stories elicited an emotional response from directors of the Native American Rights Fund. (The trailer can be viewed at www.brokenpromisesthemovie.com.)
''That trailer confirmed to me that she really understands this issue, first of all,'' NARF Executive Director John Echohawk said. ''Second of all, she's able to portray the meaning of that issue through film very effectively.''
Filming for the documentary is largely completed. Steve McEveety, producer of ''Braveheart'' and ''The Passion of the Christ,'' is one of the film's executive producers.
Janko said editing, a musical score and other production work will cost another $500,000.
Pico, Echohawk and others are hoping tribes and vendors to Indian business enterprises will contribute funds to complete the project. Contributions are tax-deductible through the International Documentary Association and can be made through the ''Broken Promises'' Web site.
''Broken Promises'' could be a useful tool in generating the public and political pressure to achieve justice for Native America, Cobell said.
''It's almost too late,'' she said. ''I wish it had been out by now.''
Dave Palermo is editor of Indian Gaming Business/Rebuilding Tribal Communities and president of Native First Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.