The honorable Nick J. Rahall, III of West Virginia will take to the floor of the House of Representatives today and deliver a speech in honor of the passing of Elouise Cobell. Below are his remarks:
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to join Indian country in mourning the death of Elouise Cobell, who passed away on Sunday, October 16. Her role as lead plaintiff in the historic Cobell v. Salazar litigation has forever changed the way the federal government views the trust responsibility with Native Americans. Elouise Cobell was a true Indian leader.
She was born Elouise Catherine Pepion, November 5, 1945, on the Blackfeet Nation reservation located on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park in Montana. After graduating from Great Falls Business College, she became an accountant and rancher. Later, Elouise served as Treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation for 13 years and helped found the first all Indian owned national bank.
It was during her time as tribal treasurer that she realized the royalty checks received by tribal members seemed substantially lower than the value of the resources owned. She learned as much as she could about the way the federal government handled the Indian trust fund accounts and found that over decades, others in Indian country had claimed the funds were badly mismanaged.
In the mid 1980s Elouise, already frustrated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), came to Congress looking for assistance and justice for all Individual Indian Money account holders. All she wanted was what all of us expect from our banker – to know how much is in each account and a showing that the balance was correct.
In 1992, the House Government Operations Committee issued a report titled, “Misplaced Trust: The BIA’s Mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund.” The report called the BIA’s management of Indian trust funds “grossly inadequate in numerous important respects.” It further found that the BIA had “failed to fulfill its fiduciary duties to beneficiaries of the Indian Trust Fund.”
Congress passed the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 to give account holders more control over, and access to, their funds, and to provide a model to reform the system.
Unfortunately, little was changed at the BIA. Fed up and frustrated with stonewalling and continued mismanagement, in 1996 Elouise filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 500,000 Indians at a time when no one else would.
In 1999, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia confirmed what Indian country had always known – the Department of the Interior had breached its trust obligation to Indians in handling Indian funds. Fourteen years after the case was first filed, 220 days of trial, 80 court decisions, and two contempt citations against Cabinet secretaries later, President Obama signed into law the landmark $3.4 billion settlement for the Indian account holders.
Because of Elouise and the litigation that she initiated, the Department of Interior has made numerous changes to the way it does business with respect to Indian funds and trust resources. Seattle University Law School Indian Law Professor Eric Eberhard said there is “no doubt that Elouise Cobell changed the legal landscape when it comes to Indian law and the federal government’s trust responsibilities.”
Against all odds, Elouise persevered with her commitment to the issue. Since the early ’90s, the Committee on Natural Resources held numerous hearings on the issues associated with the handling of Indian trust funds. It was during my tenure as Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee that I had the privilege and honor of getting to know and work with Elouise. Her dedication to this issue was bar none.
Elouise won so many battles; the only one she lost was to the cancer that took her from us too soon. She will be remembered for her strength, courage, and positive outlook. We can honor her life by continuing the work she started.
I ask that my colleagues join me in celebrating the life of Elouise Cobell and her many achievements, and in expressing our sincere condolences to her husband Alvin, her son Turk, and all her family and friends.