Update: Elouise Cobell died on October 16, 2011, at the age of 65. This profile was written as she was 9 years into her 16-year legal quest, which eventually won $3.4 billion for a half-million Native Americans—the largest settlement in US history.
ALONG HIGHWAY 89, south of the Two Medicine River on the slope of Glacier National Park, at a place Elouise Pepion Cobell passes every day on her way from her ranch to her office in Browning, stands a historical marker erected by the state of Montana:
OLD AGENCY: The Starvation Winter of 1883-1884 took the lives of about 500 Blackfeet Indians who had been camping in the vicinity of Old Agency. This tragic event was the result of an inadequate supply of government rations during an exceptionally hard winter.
The story of that winter that came down to Cobell from her parents and grandparents is a darker one: of Indians effectively imprisoned by what locals called the Indian Agency (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs or BIA) on land that had been emptied of the bison and pronghorn that had been their staples, and with their promised government provisions lost to pervasive corruption. "All the Blackfeet know," says Cobell, "that the Agency man was black-marketing the Indians' rations, and that the reservation was enclosed in barbed wire."
In the winter of 1883, as the cattle of white settlers grazed illegally on Indian lands, the Blackfeet began to die of starvation and a streptococcal epidemic. In the spring, they ate their last government-provided seed potatoes; by June they were stripping cottonwood trees to chew the inner bark; and by the time BIA officials in Washington, D.C., finally responded with extra rations, a Blackfoot man called Almost-A-Dog was said to have cut 555 notches in a willow stick, one for every Indian who had died—one in every four Blackfeet in the state of Montana.
Just west of the Old Agency historical marker, in what is now the Blackfoot Nation, lies an unmarked, wind-scoured rise of hills the Indians call Ghost Ridge, where the dead from the Starvation Winter, which actually lasted 18 unrelenting months, were buried in mass graves. When Cobell was a child, an uncle lived nearby, and every time they visited him, her parents repeated the story of Ghost Ridge. Cobell says it's those dead who give her the courage to fight on. "Fighting for them," she says. "Fighting the same government that tried to get rid of this entire race of people."
HER FIGHT TAKES THE FORM of Cobell v. Norton, a federal lawsuit on behalf of a half-million Indians across America whose individual property is held in trust by the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BIA. Interior leases these private Indian lands to oil, timber, and agricultural corporations and other commercial entities, then pays the Indians the revenues those leases yield. But Cobell claims the government has been grossly negligent in its 118 years of managing the Individual Indian Trust, treating the Indians not as clients and beneficiaries but as easy marks.
While generations of non-Indians have become rich harvesting the abundant resources of private Indian lands—which once included virtually all the oil fields of Oklahoma—Indian landowners have been paid only erratically, and far less than their due. Consequently, even landowning Indians remain among the nation's poorest citizens, joining the 23 percent of Indians in America living in poverty, and the nearly 40 percent who are unemployed. Some tribes fare even worse, and the Blackfeet suffer a 34 percent poverty rate and a 70 percent unemployment rate. Overall, Indians are more than twice as poor as the average American.
Cobell filed her lawsuit in 1996 after years of kinder entreaties failed, demanding payment of all unpaid revenues from Indian leases for the past century, a tally of past revenues, and a new accounting system to deal with future revenues. According to Cobell's forensic accountants, the government owes $176 billion to individual Indian landowners, averaging $352,000 per plaintiff, making this monetarily the largest class-action lawsuit ever launched.
If successful, Cobell's lawsuit may force a historical shift of America's capital away from the cowboys—the oil, gas, timber, mining, grazing, and agriculture industries, along with their political cohorts—toward the Indians. Furthermore, there's a nearly identical case waiting in the wings regarding Tribal Trust lands, also managed by Interior. Not surprisingly, the Clinton and Bush administrations have flexed unprecedented bureaucratic muscle to delay the resolution of Cobell v. Norton, spending hundreds of millions of dollars defending Interior.
In court, Interior is backed by the formidable resources of the Department of Justice, along with 35 of the country's most expensive private law firms. Cobell, meanwhile, rents a modest four-room office in Browning and has funded her legal challenge with $11 million in grant money. Small, soft-voiced, and an energetic 59 years old—she refers to herself as "kind of hyper" even six weeks after undergoing surgery to donate a kidney to her husband—Cobell seems an unlikely crusader. But she is the great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief, part of a pantheon of legendary Blackfeet warriors who battled the U.S. government as far back as its original real estate emissaries, Lewis and Clark.
To those concerned that the United States can't afford a Cobell v. Norton settlement, she says, "It's not your money and never was."
Front page image: WilliamMarlow/Flickr