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Elouise Cobell, or Yellow Bird Woman, was a rancher, banker, activist, and tribal elder of the Blackfoot Confederacy in the United States. She acted as the main plaintiff in the successful suit Cobell v. Salazar. The revolutionary class-action lawsuit to ensure the proper regulation and distribution of individual Indian money, or IIM, accounts given to Native Americans by the U.S. government in exchange for renting out Native American Lands.

Early Years and Education

Elouise Pepion was born on November 5, 1945, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana to parents Catherine Dubray and Polite Pepion. Elouise was the fifth of nine children to the couple and the great-granddaughter of the well-known Blackfeet leader, Mountain Chief.[1] Hevesi, D. (2011, October 17). Elouise Cobell, 65, Dies; Sued U.S. Over Indian Trust Funds. The New York Times.[1]</ref> Inokesquetee saki, or Yellowbird Woman in English, was her Blackfeet name.

The Pepion family lived on a small cattle farm without running water or electricity. Her father, Polite, helped build a schoolhouse on the reservation in 1949, which she attended until leaving for a high school about 50 miles away. While growing up, she witnessed her parents and community members struggle to get the money promised to them by the government for the rental of lands owned by Blackfeet tribe members to oil or timber companies. Elouise requested an accounting of her IIM account at 18-years-old from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), but they denied her request by stating she could not understand it.

Elouise enrolled at Great Falls Community College and graduated with a degree in accounting before moving on to study business at Montana State University. She worked with the Blackfeet BIA office during college, where she saw how little those in charge cared about helping her tribe. She left college early, during her junior year, when her mother contracted terminal cancer.[2]

Marriage and The Blackfeet National Bank

Elouise Pepion relocated to Seattle, Washington shortly after her mother died. She met another Blackfeet there named Alvin Cobell. The two married and bore a son named Turk. In 1971, the Cobell’s returned to the Pepion family ranch at the request of her father. She worked on the ranch exclusively for the next five years.

Elouise Cobell believed the Native American economy suffered due to a lack of proper financial institutions and started the Blackfeet National Bank to remedy the problem.

The Blackfeet Nation recruited Elouise Cobell as their tribal treasurer in 1976. She encountered issues with the BIA again when asking why the tribe received negative interest checks when the trustees supposedly safely invested the Blackfeet trusts into profitable accounts. They rebuked her by implying she did not understand financial statements, but she continued to investigate and question the things she found incorrect.

Cobell also searched for a new institution for Blackfeet to manage their finances after the bank on the reservation closed. She decided to start a bank instead, since Blackfeet often found securing a loan difficult. The first bank owned by a Native American tribe, the Blackfeet National Bank, was born in 1987. It began with 1 million dollars, which grew to 17 million in only 10 years. It became the Native American Bank in 2001 as 20 other tribes joined the bank and, by 2012, the bank amassed 82 million dollars in capital.[3]

Cobell v. Salazar

Elouise Pepion Cobell found many discrepancies in the Blackfeet IIM accounts managed by the U.S. government. The government provided the funds by collecting fees on the lands included in the Blackfeet trust and rented to farmers and oil, lumber, and gas producers. Over the years, the details of which decedents should receive the funds from what parcel of land became confused. Rather than fixing the accounting problems, the government ignored it and did not provide the Blackfeet trustees with their appropriate funds.[4]

Cobell discovered the BIA did not know how much money the Blackfeet lands generated, how much should be given, and to whom within the tribe. She testified before the U.S. Congress in the late 1980s and they agreed that BIA failed to manage the money properly. In 1994, the American Indian Trust Reform Act was passed.

Cobell still saw no results or money returned to the tribe in 1996, so she sought legal measures to address the problem. Three prominent law firms turned her down before she asked Dennis Gingold, a lawyer she met when she testified before Congress, and he took the case. They joined the Native American Rights Fund and five Native American plaintiffs, including Elouise Cobell, to file a class action lawsuit against the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of the Interior.[5]

The Cobell lawsuit lasted through seven trials, 22 different judicial opinions, three presidencies, and appeared 10 times in a federal appeals court before coming against the new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.[6]

Settlement, Later Career, and Death

Originally, the purpose of Cobell v. Salazar was to force the government to conduct an appropriate review of the IIM accounts and find how much money the Blackfeet made and where it went. The lawsuit transformed over the years as more and more obscene negligence was discovered and the BIA failed to comply with court rulings.

Cobell dedicated between 500-1,000 hours on land settlement lawsuit every year, but still maintained other professional positions. In 2001, she resigned as the Blackfeet National Bank’s director and founded a nonprofit branch of the now Native American Bank called the Native American Community Development Corporation (NADCD). She served as their executive director as well as a chairperson on committees for several banks.

Elouise Cobell spent 20 years of her life on the lawsuit and only spent six months free of it before battling cancer.

In 2000, the Blackfeet Nation made her a “warrior” to honor her unending battle against the BIA who falsely withheld checks from IIM accounts and blaming the lawsuit. This lasted several more years before Ken Salazar became Secretary of the Interior. On December 8, 2009, Cobell v. Salazar reached a settlement of $1.9 billion dollars to consolidate and purchase tribal lands along with $60 million for educational scholarships. It took another year before Congress agreed on a way to fund the settlement, passing the bill on November 20, 2010. President Barack Obama signed it during a special ceremony on December 8, 2010.

In June 2011, Elouise Cobell underwent cancer surgery.[7] She died on October 16, 2011, in Great Falls, Montana. Elouise Cobell was the recipient of many awards and honors throughout her life including, the MacArthur Fellowship’s “Genius Grant,” the Montana Trial Lawyers Association’s Citizens Award, an honorary degree from Dartmouth, and an honorary doctorate from her Alma Mater, Montana State University.[8]


References

Bibliography

Berger, B. (2012, October 12). Elouise Cobell: Bringing the United States to Account "Our Cause Will Ultimately Triumph": Profiles from the American Indian Sovereignty Movement Tim Alan Garrison, ed., Carolina Academic Press, 2014.[2]

Find A Grave. (2011, October 17). Elouise Pepion Cobell. Find A Grave Memorial.[3]

Savage, C. (2009, December 8). U.S. Will Settle Indian Lawsuit for $3.4 Billion. The New York Times.[4]

Footnotes

  1. Find A Grave, 2011
  2. Berger, 2012
  3. Berger, 2012
  4. Savage, 2009
  5. Berger, 2012
  6. Savage, 2009
  7. Berger, 2012
  8. Find A Grave, 2011

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