Published on December 17, 2012 by Amy
Elouise Pepion Cobell, Yellow Bird Woman (November 5, 1945 – October 16, 2011) was a Niitsítapi (Blackfoot Confederacy) elder and activist, banker, rancher, a Native American leader, and lead plaintiff in the groundbreaking litigation Cobell v. Salazar, which challenged the United States’ mismanagement of trust funds belonging to more than 500,000 individual Native Americans. In 2010 the government approved a $3.4 billion settlement for the trust case, including funds to partially compensate individual account holders, buy back lands and restore them to the Native American tribes, as well as a 60 million dollar scholarship fund. The settlement is the largest ever in a class action against the federal government.
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Elouise Pepion was born in 1945, the middle of nine children, and a great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief, one of the legendary leaders of the Blackfeet Nation. She grew up on her parents’ cattle ranch on the Blackfeet Reservation. Like many reservation families, they did not have electricity or running water. Cobell attended a one room schoolhouse until high school. She graduated from Great Falls Business College and attended Montana State University, but had to leave before graduation to care for her mother, who was dying of cancer.
After her mother’s death, Elouise moved to Seattle, where she met and married Alvin Cobell, another Blackfeet living in Washington at the time. They had one son, Turk Cobell. After returning to the reservation to help her father with the ranch, she became treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation, and founded the Blackfeet National Bank, the first national bank located on an Indian reservation and owned by a Native American tribe. In 1997, Cobell won a MacArthur genius award for her work on the bank and Native financial literacy. After twenty other tribes joined the bank to form the Native American Bank, Cobell became Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, the non-profit affiliate of the bank. She also served as Chairperson for the BlaHer professional, civic experience and expertise includes serving as Co-Chair of Native American Bank, NA.; a Board Member for First Interstate Bank; a Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian; as well as a member of other boards.
Throughout her life, Cobell also helped her husband to operate their ranch. The ranch is for cattle and crops. Cobell was active in local agriculture and environmental issues. She founded the first Land Trust in Indian Country and served as a Trustee for the Nature Conservancy of Montana.
While Treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe for more than a decade, Cobell discovered many irregularities in the management of funds held in trust by the United States for the tribe and for individual Indians. These funds were derived from fees collected by the government for Indian trust lands leased for lumber, oil production, grazing, gas and minerals, etc., from which the government was supposed to pay royalties to Indian owners. Along with the Intertribal Monitoring Association (on which she served as President), Cobell attempted to seek reform in Washington, DC from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s without success. At that point she asked Dennis Gingold (renowned banking lawyer), Thaddeus Holt, and the Native American Rights Fund (including John Echohawk and Keith Harper) to bring a class-action suit forcing reform and an accounting of the trust funds belonging to individual Indians.
Filed in June 1996, the case is known as Cobell v. Salazar. In 2010 Congress passed a bill to appropriate money for the Obama administration’s negotiated settlement of $3.4 billion of the longstanding class action suit. As of July 2011, notices are going out to the hundreds of thousands of individual Native Americans affected. Most will receive settlements of about $1800, but some may receive more.
In 2009 when settlement was reached with the government, Cobell said:
“Although we have reached a settlement totaling more than $3.4 billion, there is little doubt this is significantly less than the full accounting to which individual Indians are entitled. Yes, we could prolong our struggle and fight longer, and perhaps one day we would know, down to the penny, how much individual Indians are owed. Perhaps we could even litigate long enough to increase the settlement amount. But we are compelled to settle now by the sobering realization that our class grows smaller each year, each month and every day, as our elders die and are forever prevented from receiving their just compensation.”
Cobell died at the age of 65 on October 16, 2011, in Great Falls, Montana after a brief battle with cancer.
To honor the former president of Montana’s Elvis Presley fan club, whose activities she had to quit in order to focus on her landmark lawsuit, all car radios during her funeral procession were tuned to Elvis songs in her honor. At the viewing, a pair of life-size Elvis cutouts were put up against the rear wall and a photo of Cobell and her family at Graceland flashed occasionally in the rotating display on a big screen overhead. The buffet featured a giant cake, decorated with the words, “In Loving Memory of Elouise Cobell” — and a picture of Elvis.