Elouise Cobell was a warrior, as Jim Scott, vice chairman of the board of directors for Montana’s First Interstate Bank, told mourners at her funeral service last Saturday.
But Cobell’s fights did not take place on any battlefield. Instead, she carried her courage and quest for fairness to bank boardrooms and courtrooms, where she sought to end a long era of government mismanagement and misappropriation of assets owned by Native American people.
Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, died of cancer Oct. 16 and was mourned by family, friends and admirers from around the country. Over the course of her life, Cobell, also known as Inokesquetee saki, or Yellow Bird Woman, was awarded both a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the rare honor of a warrior’s eagle feather from the Blackfeet Nation. Her work earned her the recognition of U.S. presidents and leaders of the American Indian and business communities.
Sadly, Cobell did not live to see the fruits of her greatest endeavor. For most of the last 16 years of her life, she served as the chief plaintiff in the landmark class action suit Cobell v. Salazar. That suit sought redress for more than 300,000 people who have suffered financially from the federal government’s failure to fulfill its fiduciary duty for assets held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Though the suit has not been fully resolved, the government has agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement. Under that settlement, $1.5 billion would be directed to individuals, $1.9 billion would be used to buy and consolidate privately owned land on reservations, and $60 million would be dedicated to a scholarship fund for American Indian youth.
The settlement is an important step toward righting the series of financial and cultural abuses perpetrated against native people over the past century and a half, in the wake of the more violent conflicts that began as soon as European settlers arrived.
The particular problems addressed by the lawsuit originated with the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act. That law, dressed up as an attempt to relieve American Indian poverty, appropriated communally held tribal lands without consent and allotted them to individual tribe members. Rather than redistributing the land outright, however, the law directed the federal government to hold the land in trust for its new owners for 25 years. In the meantime, the government sold off the “surplus” land left over after each tribe member had been given a meager allotment, dramatically reducing the size of Native American land holdings and interspersing tribal land with non-tribal land. This allotment method was part of a broader, systematic attempt at coerced assimilation, which also involved forcibly sending Native American children to schools where they were forbidden to speak their native tongues.
In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act stopped future allotments and restored at least some of the so-called surplus land to its American Indian owners. However, that act also made the trust period for existing allotments permanent.
Since then, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has been responsible for collecting individual American Indians’ income from sources such as oil and gas production, grazing leases, coal production and timber sales on their allotted lands. As of 1996, the BIA held control over more than 387,000 individual accounts, totaling around $450 million at any given time.
Around the end of the 20th century, substantial evidence began to surface that the BIA allowed huge sums of money to go uncollected or unaccounted for. The BIA regularly failed to meet established accounting standards, leaving only an incomplete, gap-ridden paper trail that made the true amounts held by individuals impossible to verify. A report prepared in 1989 by Arthur Andersen & Co., which was hired to perform an audit, stated, “The accounting systems and internal control procedures utilized by the Bureau suffer from a wide variety of procedural weaknesses and other problems, such as inadequate training and supervision of personnel. Certain of these weaknesses are so pervasive and fundamental as to render the accounting systems unreliable.”
Meanwhile, as generations passed, the remnants of the allotment system resulted in the creation of what are known as fractionated lands: properties that have so many separate owners that they are of little practical use to any of those individuals. These fractionated lands can provide only minimal income to their myriad owners and, because of the logistical problems created by their shared ownership, are often left unused.
The legal settlement will compensate individuals whose money was mismanaged by the BIA and provide for the purchase and consolidation of the fractionated lands. Cobell certainly knew that the settlement she worked so hard to obtain would not resolve all of the problems faced by the country’s American Indian population. Reservations today remain, in far too many cases, remote and neglected pockets of poverty, isolation, poor health and little hope. The settlement will, however, provide resources to make life a little better for individuals in the present and set the stage for improved land management in the future.
Although I lived in Cobell’s home state of Montana for seven years, and wrote periodically about Native American affairs while I was there, I never met her. I left the state in 1981, a good 15 years before she launched her class-action battle. But, like so many others, I admire her accomplishments. Many great tribal leaders of the past had to settle for fleeting tactical victories while their people’s freedoms and properties were steadily diminished. Elouise Cobell, in contrast, will be remembered as the warrior who forced Washington to make amends.