Skip to main content

Wilkinson: How many of us have Elouise Cobell’s courage?

My mother is tremendously relentless when it comes to doing what’s right. Maybe now she can finally enjoy a normal life again and get something she hasn’t had – rest.”

That is Turk Cobell’s description of his mom.

Late in 2009, it appeared that Elouise Cobell’s famous struggle had finally ended. For 13 years, she battled to hold the federal government accountable for mismanaging billions of dollars in royalties owed to 500,000 Native Americans across the country.

Besides rest and an apparent $3.4 billion victory, Cobell, a Blackfeet Indian banker who grew up on the flanks of Glacier National Park in Montana, received something else no other administration would give her: A handshake and a respectful look in the eye from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Cobell’s class-action lawsuit involved a simple premise. Generations of Indian property owners, whose private land was managed in trust by the federal government, never received the payments owed them for commercial uses from mining to oil and gas development.

Cobell was portrayed as an Indian with a grudge who needed to get over the horrors that indigenous people had suffered, and move on.

While Cobell endured stalling from the Clinton administration, the tactics employed by the Bush administration during the tenure of Interior Secretary Gale Norton were even more demeaning and downright nasty.

“She [Cobell] endured intimidation of witnesses who were afraid to testify and lying by government officials that was noted even by a district court judge, but she never backed down,” said Cobell’s attorney, Dennis M. Gingold.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote a series of scathing condemnations of Secretary Norton’s Interior Department, including one in which he said, “I have never seen more egregious misconduct by the federal government.”

Cobell’s saga started in the 1980s. She was working for a community bank in Browning, Mont., trying to track down the value of royalties that were being used as collateral by some of her customers on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

She discovered that the bookkeeping ledgers for Indian trust lands were indecipherable or non-existent. She kept digging, and every time she was rebuffed, she dug deeper. The dead ends didn’t add up.

Cobell maintained all along that if this hadn’t involved Indians and instead happened on Wall Street with half a million shareholders discovering malfeasance on a scale of billions of dollars, there would have been criminal charges and outrage expressed by elected officials.

Instead, Cobell was portrayed as an Indian with a grudge who needed to get over the horrors that indigenous people had suffered, and move on.

She refused to give up.

Forensic experts who investigated the mismanagement estimated the total amount of “misplaced” royalties, combined with interest they could have earned, at more than $170 billion.

Just last year, Cobell rejected a proposed settlement of $455 million, which she considered an insult.

One of the things about America is that the country has never formally taken responsibility for the string of injustices committed against Indians.

The $3.4 billion agreement happened because President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Salazar promised they would make resolution a priority. But in recent months, some members of Congress have stalled passage of a bill to formally appropriate the funds for a settlement.

Among those who have stood in the way is U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a medical doctor by profession, who wanted to limit attorney’s fees.

Just before the Fourth of July holiday recess, the House of Representatives approved the settlement, which is part of a larger bill authorizing money for military deployment in Afghanistan. Now all eyes are on the Senate.

One of the things about America is that the country has never formally taken responsibility for the string of injustices committed against Indians, from stolen land to almost unthinkable human rights abuses to children being ripped away from their families and sent away to brutal schools where they were forbidden from speaking their Native languages and, more recently, the royalty issues raised by Elouise Cobell.

Cobell’s persistence earned her the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Grant, also known as the Genius Prize. She used much of the proceeds from that honor to keep her court case in play.

She believes the $3 billion settlement does not come close to resolving how the royalty fiasco negatively affected lives.

“I have to say my every sense is that this judgment probably falls far short of the true financial loss,” said Charles F. Wilkinson, an Indian law expert at the University of Colorado-Boulder Law School. “Obviously, the award is substantial and it shows that when Indian people organize and bring their complaints to the government, they can be heard. This isn’t total justice but there is considerable vindication here.”

On a larger note, Wilkinson said the perception of the Obama administration as moving too slowly on important issues doesn’t apply to what some colloquially call “Indian country.”

“This administration has been pure mountain water as far as Indian issues,” he said. “Where things go from here, we shall see.”

The average individual settlements are not likely to be huge sums, probably in the range of only a few thousand dollars. What haunts Cobell is the fact that thousands of families dwelled in poverty and never received earnings that could have made a difference in their lives.

The money would have enabled parents to buy their kids birthday and holiday gifts; instead, they went without. It could have given elders enough to purchase sweaters to stay warm during cold winters in ramshackle homes; it could have been the deciding factor between sons and daughters going off to college or staying home in dead-end communities.

Real dreams were squashed and destinies altered, Cobell said.

“Elouise represents the best in all of us. We’re talking about a single individual from rural Browning, Mont. who took on the full power of the U.S. government and won,” Gingold said. “It a story of epic proportions and in my 35 years as a lawyer, her demand for justice is unparalleled.”

Journalist Todd Wilkinson has been writing about the West for 20 years and is author of a forthcoming book on Ted Turner.