Elouise Pepion Cobell, Yellow Bird Woman ~ Blackfeet

Published on March 28, 2012 by Amy

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Elouise Pepion Cobell
Elouise Pepion Cobell

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 a portion for settlement of four Indian water-rights cases. The major portion of the settlement is to be used to buy back lands and restore them to the Native American tribes.

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Elouise Cobell was a member of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe of Montana, one of eight children of Polite and xxx Cobell, and a great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief, one of the legendary Blackfeet leaders of the West. She graduated from Great Falls Business College and attended Montana State University.

She was the Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, a non-profit affiliate of Native American Bank. She also served as Chairperson for the Blackfeet National Bank, the first national bank located on an Indian reservation and owned by a Native American tribe. Her 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. She served for thirteen years as the Treasurer for the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana.

Cobell operated a working ranch with her husband Alvin, and they had a son Turk. 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.

As Treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, she established the Blackfeet National Bank, the first national bank to be located on an Indian reservation and to be owned by a Native American tribe. She served on the Board of the Native American Bank and First Interstate Bank.

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 (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.

Legacy and honors

  • 1997: “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Fellowship Program
    Awarded an honorary doctorate from Montana State University
  • 2002: received the International Women’s Forum award for “Women Who Make a Difference,” in Mexico City.
  • 2004: Jay Silverheels Achievement Award from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.
  • 2005: received a “Cultural Freedom Fellowship” from the Lannan Foundation, an award that cited her persistence in bringing to light the government’s “more than a century of government malfeasance and dishonesty” with the Indian Trust.
  • 2007: one of ten people to receive American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Impact Award (for making the world a better place)
  • 2011: awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Dartmouth College
  • 2011: awarded the Montana Trial Lawyers Association’s Citizens Award
  • 2011: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, is co-sponsoring legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Elouise Cobell (née Pepion).
  • Source: wikipedia

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