Sitting soberly amongst a recognizable all-star cast of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, Turk Cobell perched quietly on the edge of his chair waiting to receive his mother’s long overdue recognition. Amidst the glitz and glamour infused into the East Wing of the White House by a stage filled with entertainment greats, sports figures, renowned innovators and philanthropists, his presence seemed almost incongruous. Aside from those who knew why he was there, few recognized the man seated between Ellen DeGeneres and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Yet he was at ease, because many people like them had been part of the fabric of his young life. His mother, Elouise Pepion Cobell—”Yellow Bird Woman”—was being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for winning her fight against the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Treasury. The lawsuit that bears her name, Cobell v. Salazar, was filed in 1996 and sought to reclaim an estimated $176 billion owed to various Plains Nations (her tribal Blackfeet nation among them) due to mismanagement, diversion of funds to other programs, corruption, and outright theft of its trust funds.
As an only child, Cobell witnessed this chapter of history unfold. He saw his mother eventually win from his front row seat at home. Only 20 years old and fresh out of college when his mother laid the foundation for the landmark lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior, Turk Cobell can hardly recall a time when she was not enmeshed in it. Elouise Cobell had never been one to tolerate injustice. The great-granddaughter of a famous Blackfeet chief, and she learned first-hand while serving as the tribe’s Treasurer of the 100-plus years of U.S. government corruption and mismanagement of tribal accounts. Always one to do the right thing, according to her son, and armed with her education, natural genius and experience, she set out to not only win the right to sue the federal government but to file the suit in which she was chief plaintiff in 1996. Cobell v. Salazar was ultimately moved to settlement by the Department of the Interior in December 2009 and signed by President Obama on December 8, 2010. However, it was not until June 20, 2016 that it received a federal judge’s approval and passed into law.
In his remarks at the awards ceremony for the 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Obama remarked, “When Elouise Cobell first filed a lawsuit to recover lands and money for her people, she didn’t set out to be a hero. She said, ‘I just wanted…to give justice to people that didn’t have it.’ And her lifelong quest to address the mismanagement of American Indian lands, resources, and trust funds wasn’t about special treatment, but the equal treatment at the heart of the American promise.
“She fought for almost 15 years…[Reaching] ultimately a historic victory for all Native Americans. Through sheer force of will and a belief that the truth will win out, Elouise Cobell overcame the longest odds, reminding us that fighting for what is right is always worth it.”
Those words were echoed in a statement to ICTMN by Turk Cobell, who said that it was “Always important to his mother to do the right thing.” So she was elated to see the case finally settled. But, he said, she would not want this case to define her. She measured her success in being a loving mother to her son and her two precious grandchildren. Early on in the suit, he stated that she always maintained that you “only fight the Feds once” in a lifetime. Exhausted after the more than 15 year case was resolved, she wanted to retire. Sadly, by the end of her “once,” she had fallen ill, and cancer took her in on October 16, 2011, at age 65.
The ultimate settlement fell far short of the $176 billion sought in the lawsuit. At the end of the day, in the largest settlement the government has paid various tribal nations received $3.4 billion. Of that, $1.4 billion went to more than 300,000 individual Indians to settle historical accounting claims as well as “to establish and settle a new class of claims relating to resource mismanagement, which were not part of the Cobell lawsuit.” The Secretary of the Interior will use another $2 billion to consolidate highly fractionated lands. Of this, $40 million will go to the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund. Turk Cobell sits on its board of directors. When asked whether the tribe would have seen a similar outcome today and what Elouise Cobell might think about the incoming administration, Mr. Cobell declined to comment. “I will leave the political issues to the politicians. I’ve chosen not to provide statements or interviews regarding specifics of the case,” he said.
When asked whether the posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom was bittersweet, Mr. Cobell replied that he was simply pleased that in awarding it, the President solidified what everyone around her had known forever: Elouise Cobell was extraordinary. He also expressed satisfaction that the President had taken personal interest in the case, and was instrumental in its settlement. Nevertheless, Ms. Cobell has left a legacy beyond Indian country. Moving forward, her son hopes that the medal will serve as an inspiration to many Americans, not just Indians. The family intends to exhibit the medal at interested organizations and schools in Montana, then “cherish it for the rest of their lives.” The Cobell Educational Scholarship Fund comprises her enduring tangible legacy to Indian country. Designed to provide funding in perpetuity to American Indians and Alaskan Natives to obtain higher education, funds are available to Indian Country applicants. Finally, to Mr. Cobell, while activism embodies passion and work, scholarship will touch more lives and its effects will be more long-lived.