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Elouise Cobell's Accounting Coup

A profile of the late Blackfoot woman who successfully sued the federal government for billions on behalf of ripped-off Native Americans.

THE DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR has responded to its ongoing losses in court with tactics the plaintiffs construe as retaliatory and intimidating. In 2004, after Judge Lamberth found the BIA was seizing land owned by Indian trustees without properly informing them of its value or location and selling it to oil companies, he ordered the agency to stop communicating with plaintiffs regarding the sale, conversion, and transfer of land. Interior reacted by shutting down BIA offices and phone lines, telling Indians they would not receive their royalty checks because of the lawsuit. Cobell's name was published on the BIA website—tacit encouragement, she says, for Indians to call and blame her. "It was the dumbest thing they could have done," she says. "I returned every one of those calls and explained what was really going on."

Among the Indians who filed affidavits about these BIA tactics was Verna St. Goddard, an elderly Blackfoot. She ran into problems when she visited the BIA office in Browning last February. For more than 35 years St. Goddard has withdrawn funds for the developmentally disabled Roseline Spotted Eagle, her former foster child. But not this day. A BIA official ordered her to drive to Great Falls and ascertain the price of the goods she wanted to buy for Spotted Eagle, then drive back to the BIA office for a check, and then return to Great Falls to purchase the items and back again—480 miles altogether. (A perfect example, St. Goddard quips, of what the BIA really stands for: Bossing Indians Around.) When she asked the BIA official why he wouldn't give Spotted Eagle her money, as he has for years, he said it was because of the Elouise Cobell lawsuit.

Lamberth called these tactics "a testament to the startling inhumanity of government bureaucracy…[and] a deliberate, infantile, and frankly ridiculous misinterpretation of this Court's straightforward order." He added: "The idea that Interior would either instruct or allow BIA to withhold payments and then to stonewall the Indians who dared to ask why is an obscenity that harkens back to the darkest days of United States-Indian relations…The perniciousness and irresponsibility demonstrated by blaming the Court pales in comparison to the utter depravity and moral turpitude displayed by [Interior's] willingness to withhold needed finances from people struggling to survive and support families on subsistence incomes."

 

BIT BY BIT, piece by piece, the Department of the Interior is losing this case. But as with the Starvation Winter, government tactics are exacerbating the agony—in part by appealing every one of Judge Lamberth's rulings. Interior recently lost a challenge to Lamberth's right to adjudicate the case. The department also appealed and lost a key ruling entitling the plaintiffs to full compound interest on all unpaid Individual Indian Monies. Currently, Interior is at loggerheads over how—or if—the historical accounting dating back to 1887 can be accomplished.

In 2003, Congress inserted itself into the machinations by attaching midnight riders to omnibus budget and Iraq appropriation bills to delay the court-ordered historical accounting. It also attempted to cut the salary of court-appointed investigators, while permitting Secretary Gale Norton to use discretionary funds to pay for the scores of private attorneys hired by all past and present Interior employees appearing in the case.

In July, Judge Lamberth wrote: "For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilationist policy programs, and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians are merely the echoes of a horrible, bigoted government past that has been sanitized by the good deeds of more recent history, this case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few."

Cobell however is confident the Indians will eventually win. The government has no case and they know it, she says. "They can't provide the historical accounting because they've lost or destroyed too many records. Their only strategy now is to go slow and try to outlive us all." The plaintiffs are willing to settle but insist that, after more than a century of ongoing mismanagement, Interior needs to be removed as trustee, and the Individual Indian Trust put into receivership.

 

COBELL'S OFFICE, upstairs on a side street in Browning, is a cheery mess, littered with awards, treasures, books, and paintings—the disordered hallmarks of someone who spends more time at work than at home. From here, she orchestrates the many brainstorms that occupy a mind bent on improving life across Indian country.

Thanks to Cobell, Browning now has the feel of a ghost town regenerating its flesh and blood, 30 years after white business owners fled most reservations. Today the Blackfoot Nation hosts more than 200 enterprises, 80 percent of them Indian-owned, and most launched with loans from the banks Cobell helped start. Yet her ideas are wider ranging than banking. As founder and executive director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, Cobell initiated a recycling program on the reservation funded with an annual art auction in nearby Glacier National Park. She also facilitated the creation of the Blackfeet Land Trust—the first land trust administered by Indians—protecting 1,200 acres of unique fen vital to grizzlies, a species the Blackfeet revere. "We Indians were the original environmentalists," she says. "We need to get back to that."

Three years ago, the Blackfeet awarded her warrior status—a rare honor for a woman. In 1997, in recognition of her diverse talents, the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a "genius" grant. She jokes about having made the leap from "dumb Indian" to "genius" in one lifetime, and says she doesn't ever again want Indians taken advantage of because they don't understand banking and finance. Collaborating with tribal educator Roberta Kipp, Cobell founded a mini bank program in which Blackfeet kids in elementary school open bank accounts, play the roles of bankers and customers, and grow their money during their school years. They reap the windfall when they graduate. Cobell, herself a graduate of a one-room schoolhouse, insists, "I want these kids to understand the way the world works, and to question everything that comes before them." No more silence or fear. After 118 years, it's time to call in the debt.

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