WASHINGTON — Elouise Cobell, who led a 15-year fight to clean up the federal government's management of individual Indian trust accounts, died Sunday in Montana, just four months after a $3.4 billion settlement in the class-action case that bore her name won court approval. She was 65 and had cancer.
Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, was praised Monday by President Barack Obama and leaders of the department in charge of the trust accounts, which date back more than a century to Indian land allotments.
“Elouise spoke out when she saw that the Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect on behalf of more than 300,000 of her fellow Native Americans,” Obama said.
“Because she did, I was able to sign into law a piece of legislation that finally provided a measure of justice to those who were
It was the largest class-action settlement against the federal government in U.S. history. It will affect an estimated 50,000 Indians in Oklahoma. Interior Department officials were in Oklahoma City last week to discuss one aspect of the settlement.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Cobell “sought justice to address historical wrongs that had weighed on our nation's conscience and was a significant force for change.”
Cobell was the lead plaintiff and the public face of the lawsuit filed against the government in 1996 to force an overhaul of the system set up to protect the assets of individual Indians who held land in trust and made money from leasing or selling it.
Cobell usually was present during the many days of trials and hearings in the lawsuit; she raised private money and even donated some of her own, from a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” to pay for the expenses.
Her illness kept her from attending the last hearing in the case, on June 20, when the judge approved the settlement; however, she read a statement in court over a phone
The contentious suit, which spanned three district judges and dozens of rulings, ultimately was settled when the Obama administration decided to quit fighting it.
About $1.4 billion will be divided among account holders, and $1.9 billion will be used to consolidate land that has been divided over generations into small parcels. A scholarship fund also will be
Cobell's share of the settlement was $2 million.
She was born on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, with the Indian name Yellow Bird Woman.
Larry Echo Hawk, assistant Interior secretary for Indian Affairs, said Monday, “Elouise Cobell battled to make our country acknowledge historical wrongdoing, and she spoke truth to power so that justice could prevail.
“Through her legacy, individual Indians will have more control over their lands, and many American Indian and Alaska Natives will be able to pursue higher education through the scholarship component of the settlement.”