The Indian woman who fought the U.S. government—and won—has lost her battle with cancer. Blackfeet Nation tribal citizen Elouise Cobell passed away Sunday evening at age 65 in Great Falls, Montana. Diagnosed with cancer last year, Cobell reportedly had surgery in April at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for what she described then as “a serious cancer.” The type of cancer has not been released.
Born one of eight children on the Blackfeet Reservation on Nov. 5, 1945, Cobell was a great granddaughter of Mountain Chief, a historical Indian leader of the West, and was given the Indian name “Yellow Bird Woman.” She became well-known throughout the United States after she filed a historic lawsuit in 1996 with four other Native Americans, 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. President Barack Obama then signed the agreement into law, and U.S. Senior District Judge Thomas F. Hogan granted final approval this June. Final financial awards are pending appeal due to some controversial aspects of the settlement. As the appeals process continues, U.S. Department of the Interior officials have been holding consultation sessions with tribal leaders and citizens on aspects of the agreement.
When Obama met with Cobell in the Oval Office last December, he lauded her hard work, and upon her death, issued the following statement: “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Elouise Cobell yesterday. Elouise spoke out when she saw that the Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect on behalf of more than 300,000 of her fellow Native Americans. Because she did, I was able to sign into law a piece of legislation that finally provided a measure of justice to those who were affected. That law also creates a scholarship fund to give more Native Americans access to higher education, and give tribes more control over their own lands. Elouise helped to strengthen the government to government relationship with Indian Country, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family, and all those who mourn her passing.”
Despite the controversies related to that settlement, Cobell was well-respected in Indian country because of her willingness to take on a battle so huge. Many times throughout her case, the federal government placed formidable roadblocks in her way, but she pressed on. Her lead lawyer, Dennis Gingold, called her a “warrior woman” soon after the settlement was announced.
Keith Harper, another lawyer on the Cobell team, offered the following words soon after her passing: “Elouise was, in a word, remarkable, as were her contributions and unfailing courage. She was the source of strength for the Cobell case and the reason why justice was finally obtained for half a million Native people in the form of the largest settlement of any suit against the United States in history. With any moment of progressive social change, there is always an iconic figure who will define that movement—the person who refused to get to the back of the bus. For Indian people, for this importance cause, for this indelible change, that person was Elouise Cobell. I will miss her deeply.”
Jackie Trotchie, a friend of Cobell’s and an Indian advocate in Montana, offered the following statement upon her loss: “Elouise will always be remembered by me as a woman who fought the battle many of us didn’t know how to fight, and she did it with integrity despite the bullets to her chest and the arrows in her back. She will be remembered as the one and only modern-day female warrior who honored all those individual land owners who passed before her.”
Democratic U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both of Montana, introduced legislation in early September to award Cobell the Congressional Gold Medal, which has yet to be ratified. “Hundreds of thousands of American Indians will benefit due to Elouise’s dedication to justice, fairness and the trust responsibility of the U.S. government,” Tester said at the time. “Elouise refused to take ‘No’ for an answer and her tireless pursuit represents the standard by which we should award historic honors like the Congressional Gold Medal.”
“Elouise’s hard work on behalf of not only Montana’s tribes, but for American Indians everywhere deserves thanks and the highest recognition available,” Baucus said. “Generations to come will benefit because Elouise stood up and demanded a better future for American Indians.”
Tester offered the following statement after her passing: “Elouise Cobell was a star—truly a guiding light that will always lead the way for all Americans who fight for justice and fairness. Elouise’s tireless leadership set this nation on a new course, and what she accomplished reminds us that any person in any part of this country has the power to stand up and right a wrong, no matter how difficult it may be… Future generations will learn about Elouise Cobell’s legacy and they will be inspired to follow her lead. She will always be remembered as an American hero.”
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who signed on to co-sponsor the Congressional Medal legislation in mid-September, offered the following statement after her passing: “Elouise was an extraordinary American who made countless contributions to our country, which is why I believe she deserves the highest honor Congress can bestow upon a civilian. Indian Country–and the entire country–has lost an inspiring leader.”
In 1997, Cobell was awarded a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Fellows program, which she reportedly used to fund a portion of her lawsuit. In 2002, she received the International Women’s Forum award for “Women Who Make a Difference” in Mexico City. In 2004, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development presented gave her the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award. In 2005, she received a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. In 2007, she was awarded an AARP Impact Award. Earlier this year, she was named “Montana Citizen of the Year” by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.
Cobell was a banker, and one of the founders of the Native American Bank, based in Denver. Her experience in that field helped her understand the government’s mismanagement of trust funds, she said in interviews. She also served as executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp, the bank’s nonprofit affiliate; and she served for 13 years as treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation. She was the co-chair of Native American Bank NA, and she was a former trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Cobell, along with her husband, Alvin Cobell, also operated a working ranch that produced cattle and crops.
She graduated from Great Falls Business College and attended Montana State University, from which she later received an honorary doctorate. She also had honorary degrees from Rollins College and Dartmouth College.
Her survivors include: her husband, Alvin; a son, Turk Cobell and his wife, Bobbie; two grandchildren, Olivia, and Gabriella; a brother, Dale Pepion; and three sisters, Julene Kennerly; Joy Ketah; and Karen Powell.