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Elouise Cobell

Elouise Cobell

For more than 13 years, a massive class-action lawsuit occasionally poked its way into the notoriously short attention span of Americans.

There would, every few months or couple of years, be updates of the latest twists and turns in what was, as it progressed, either Cobell v. Babbitt, Cobell v. Norton, Cobell v. Kempthorne, or Cobell v. Salazar.

The Secretaries of the Interior changed through three presidential administrations, but the one constant was always Elouise Cobell of Browning.

Think it’s hard to fight city hall? Cobell, a Blackfeet Indian, took on the federal government.

“100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice” is her story. The entry in the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula condenses more than a century of history, and more than a decade of the long-running lawsuit involving Indian trust accounts, into 76 minutes.

You’ll leave convinced of something. What, exactly, will be up to you.

It could be that Cobell was as tenacious and courageous as she was genial. It could be that the federal government is more inept and unscrupulous than even its harshest critics fear.

It could be that Cobell prevailed; it could be that the victory was a hollow one.

But you will leave convinced of something.

***

Cobell, the great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief, grew up in a Blackfeet Reservation home with no electricity or running water. Life took her away from the reservation, first to college, then to Seattle, but she returned to Browning, where she became treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe.

It was in that position that Cobell uncovered irregularities in the management of funds held in trust by the United States government for tribes and individual Indians – funds collected from fees charged for Indian-owned lands leased for oil and gas production, timber harvests, mining and livestock grazing.

The amount of money Indians had never received for activities on their own land was huge – either several billion dollars, as the feds would finally admit, or up to $176 billion, as some Indians would claim.

“This was not an Indian issue,” Cobell says in “100 Years.” “This was mismanagement of money owned by people. And I’m a banker. I understand how other people’s money is managed, and this was criminal.”

After more than a decade of trying to fix a broken system, Cobell upped the ante.

“I had never filed a lawsuit in my life,” she says, but on June 10, 1996, she filed the largest class-action lawsuit in the history of the United States.

***

Cobell was nervous when the case was assigned to U.S. District Court judge Royce Lamberth, a Texan and conservative appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan.

“He turned out to be the most intelligent person I have ever encountered,” Cobell says.

Lamberth had no patience for an Interior Department that claimed it couldn’t locate tens of thousands of requested documents, or account for billions of dollars that came into the trust accounts.

“If your Social Security information were kept in such a manner, there would be an outcry that would be insane,” Alan Balaran, court-appointed special master in the case, says in “100 Years.”

On Dec. 21, 1999, Lamberth ruled the United States had breached its trust responsibilities, and ordered the federal government to render an accurate accounting of all individual Indian monies held in trust.

***

Another decade would pass before the Obama administration settled the lawsuit for $3.4 billion – pennies on the dollar, no matter whose figure you use, but the largest award against the federal government in American history.

“Every day, four or five older people die,” Cobell says in explaining the settlement. “I’ve worked 10 years and I haven’t gotten them one cent. And they’ve died. So you compromise.”

Along the way the government dragged its feet, failed to produce records and successfully had Lamberth removed from the case, in 2006.

“Where could you go and find that a judge would be removed,” Cobell asks, “because he based his decisions on the facts, and because Native American people were winning?”

Although the settlement was announced in 2009, no Indians had yet received their portion of it when Cobell died of cancer on Oct. 16, 2011.

Fifty years from now, “We’re going to be talking about Elouise Cobell the way we talk about Rosa Parks,” U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, predicts in “100 Years.” “She’s a great American who stood up for the rights of her people – and in doing that, she stands up for the rights of all Americans.”

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