Remembering Elouise Cobell, the Angel in Browning, Montana – updated November 2016
“One of the largest U.S. government settlements in history began with a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont. The Blackfeet leader observed that those who leased Indian land made money from its natural resources, while the Indians themselves remained in poverty with no accounting of the royalties from that land that were held in trust for them by the government” – Matt Volz, Associated Press
In watching this case about the gross mismanagement of trust monies from oil leases by the federal government unfold, I wondered from the beginning as I tracked updates in the press, via e-mail newsletters from Cobell’s team, and followed the legal labyrinth on the Indian Trust website whether it was possible for a banker and farmer from Browning to prevail over the well-entrenched bureaucracy of the Department of the Interior. She did. Unfortunately, she did not live to see the disbursements of the long-overdue monies begin. (She died of cancer two years ago.)
In 2005, I satirized the callous attitude of the multiple Secretaries of the Interior involved in the case in Worst of Jock Stewart as follows:
Lack of Trust
Come and listen to a story about a man named Ned
A Blackfeet Brave, whose check’s looted by the Fed,
Long, long ago his land fell in a trust,
So now his crude hardly pays for a crust.
Bread that is, Staff of Life.
The Fed told each Indian, “You’re so damn dumb
You’ll lose all your cash like a hapless bum,
So we’ll handle your leases and pay your fees
To ensure you can’t get up off your knees.”
Paternalism, that is. Great white father.
Well now steps forward one Elouise Cobell
And asks the Fed if it will kindly tell,
Why royalty payments have been so low,
And why the records were all lost long, long ago.
Hands in the till, that is. Out of sight, out of mind.
Y’all don’t worry about it though, y’hear?
As far as I know, Ms. Cobell never saw this poem. That’s just as well because, quite clearly, she had more faith in her ultimate triumph than my alter ego Jock Stewart. Through press reports and her updates, we saw her day-to-day struggle for justice where little had been found before. The settlement was approved by the government in 2010.
She told the Associated Press that year, “”I never started this case with any intentions of being a hero. I just wanted this case to give justice to people that didn’t have it.”
Now, as we read the news (finally) of the upcoming disbursements of long-owed funds, I think again that Ms. Cobell, Yellow Bird Woman, nonetheless became a hero as well as an angel.
UPDATE 11-16-16: Elouise Cobell to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom The awards were handed out by the President on November 22, 2016. Perhaps because of several widely know recipients and/or the fact that Cobell’s award was posthumous, her name wasn’t mention in a lot of the coverage.