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Say Thanks to Elouise Cobell

As a youngster I asked Mom to buy me a Stingray bike. She gave me the same answer her parents gave her when she wanted a new bike, “Wait ‘til we get the big claim.” I was in high school when the “big claim” money finally came in the form of a Blackfeet tribal check. Instead of a bike it paid for a ’64 Chevy.

After the December 2009 Cobell Settlement Agreement the promise was the same but the words were slightly different, now parents were saying, “wait ‘til we get our Cobell checks.” It wasn’t until four years later that the $1,000 checks came in a flurry. Then the promise of a second round of checks and again similar words echoed, “wait ‘til we get our next Cobell check.” For the past year and half it’s been “wait’n for my Cobell check.” And then they came in a flurry.

As soon as the word got out that checks were coming, reservation post offices became centers of activity. As the checks started arriving, convenience stores—and anywhere else checks could be cashed—started seeing long lines. In border towns the “For Sale” signs were slapped on cars hardly running or barely running. A convenience store in Anadarko, where lines of Caddo, Wichita, Delaware, Kiowa, Comanche and Ft. Sill Apache lined up checks in hand, reportedly ran out of cash. A source close to the action, quipped that the store probably ran out of gizzards and kidney too.

Like the Blackfeet land claim settlement and Christmas, the origins of the Cobell settlement payment are easily lost in the frenzy of opening an envelope and cashing a check. Before the money is spent we should pause for a moment to remind ourselves of who we should thank for our windfalls, large and small, or none at all. In the mid-80s Elouise Cobell saw a pattern of federal government wrongs and decided to step forward to do something about it. Her effort resulted in a 1996 class-action suit challenging the federal government.

We always have the choice to do something or do nothing, and doing nothing typically offers far less risk. Elouise knew early on that stepping forward to expose decades of the federal government's gross mismanagement of our precious resources was going to take a personal toll, but she courageously pressed on. As the years went by, she was more vigorously attacked and still she continued the fight. Unfailingly there are unintended consequences of action and the more monumental the action the greater risk of unintended consequences, and this was, indeed, a monumental feat.

The government fought to mitigate their devious behavior while the plaintiff's attorneys fought to demonstrate the true scope of the damage done. In the end, both sides won some courtroom battles, but at the end of the day the class-action attorneys demonstrated without question that the government willfully pillaged the coffers of Indian country.

Many found something to worry about as the process unfolded— how much attorneys were being paid, how much Elouise was entitled to, checks that might be too small or take too long to arrive, the Whereabouts Unknown being left out, a relative might get more than me, I might not get anything, and on, and on. Despite our concerns, right or wrong; hundreds of thousands have received checks, tens of thousands will be educated into the future, many tribes' land base will be strengthened, and we have the satisfaction of exposing epic misdeeds, all because one determined woman made the choice to take courageous action.

Some will fritter the money away, but most will pay rent or make a house payment, buy children gifts, pay tuition, buy groceries, insulate a home, get a new furnace, repair a car, etc., and thankfully we have that choice to do as we please. We may not all agree with the overall outcome of the settlement, but we must all remain mindful of the origins of that check. Take a moment to quietly say thanks to Elouise Cobell, who now rests in peace with all the great warriors of our nations.

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI special agent, deputy director of BIA law enforcement and is currently president of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates' Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.