Elouise Cobell, American Indian who championed class-action lawsuit against U.S. government, dies at 65

Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet tribal member who led a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 500,000 Indians against the Interior Department that yielded one of history’s largest government settlements — a payout worth $3.4 billion — died late Sunday at a hospital in Great Falls, Mont. She was 65 and had cancer.

The death was confirmed by Bill McAllister, a family spokesman.

Mrs. Cobell spent nearly 15 years advancing the suit, which was settled in 2010. It claimed that the Interior Department had stolen or squandered billions of dollars in royalties owed to individual tribal members, mostly in the West, in exchange for oil, gas and other leases.

Mrs. Cobell, an accountant who grew up on a reservation in Montana without electricity, a telephone or running water, was all too familiar with stories of the government’s mistreatment of tribes. She said the federal mismanagement of the land trusts dated from the 19th century and had contributed to a pattern that had left her tribe with high poverty and unemployment rates.

“The issue we’re dealing with,” she told the New York Times in 2004, “is the fact that we don’t know how much land we own, we don’t know what the resources are on that land because the government has gotten away with not reporting to the trust beneficiaries.”

The landmark settlement was ratified by Congress and signed into law last year by President Obama, who called it an “important step towards a sincere reconciliation.”

Eric Eberhard, an Indian law expert at the Seattle University law school, said there was “no doubt that Elouise Cobell changed the legal landscape when it comes to Indian law and the federal government’s trust responsibilities.”

He said Mrs. Cobell was “able to demonstrate in court that the mismanagement was profound — that, in some instances, monies which should have been credited to accounts never showed up.”

Mrs. Cobell served as treasurer of her Montana tribe and helped found the first Indian-owned national bank, where she spoke with Blackfeet distressed by the paltry income their acreage seemed to bring in from Washington.

By the time she filed the far-reaching lawsuit in 1996, she had grown convinced that the federal government was not moving swiftly enough to address problems with the land trusts.

Almost nothing had happened, she said, even though Congress passed a trust reform act in 1994, after a scathing report two years earlier by the House Committee on Government Operations called “Misplaced Trust: The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund.”

She thought that no action by the government would likely occur without legal pressure from Indian country.

Mrs. Cobell was aided over the years by foundation money. That included a “genius grant” of $310,000 in 1997 from the John D. MacArthur Foundation, which called Mrs. Cobell “an advocate for Native American self-determination and financial independence whose work has inspired many Native American women to seek influence and leadership within their own communities.”

Mrs. Cobell traced the origins of her suit to 1887, when Congress passed the General Allotment Act. The legislation divided tribal-owned land into smaller parcels and gave the allotments to individual Indians.

The federal government placed the properties into a trust and leased the land to settlers. The royalties generated from logging, grazing, mining and oil drilling were distributed among the individual Indians and, after their death, to their descendants.

Investigations showed that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, which managed the allotments and the revenue accounts, paid the Indian landowners erratically, if at all. For decades, some Indians were sent checks for as little as 8 cents.

Furthermore, the Bureau of Indian Affairs no longer possessed many of the documents that showed how much Indian land the government controlled.

At trial, several officials said some documents were shredded at a Hyattsville facility as part of the Interior Department’s routine house-cleaning. Other crucial records in an Albuquerque warehouse had to be destroyed because they became contaminated with asbestos and the deadly hantavirus from rodent feces.

Federal Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who oversaw the lawsuit, described the Interior Department in a 2005 court decision as a “dinosaur — the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago, the last pathetic outpost of the indifference and anglocentrism we thought we had left behind.”

Over the years, Lamberth held two secretaries of the interior, Gale Norton and Bruce Babbitt, as well as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, in contempt for failing to address what the judge described as a dysfunctional system.

In 2006, a panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District took the rare step of ordering Lamberth, a Ronald Reagan appointee, removed from the case, saying he displayed strong bias against the Interior Department because of his harsh tone.

“That was a low point,” Mrs. Cobell later told the Associated Press. “We knew it would be hard to get a new judge up to speed. The government has all the money in the world, but we don’t have deep pockets.”

After 220 days of trial, 80 court decisions and 10 interlocutory appeals, the case was settled when the Interior Department agreed to the $3.4 billion deal in 2009. The settlement included $1.5 billion for Indians involved in the lawsuit and $1.9 billion to purchase fractioned land parcels and turn them over in whole to tribes.

“This is an historic, positive development for Indian country,” Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar said at the time, “and a major step on the road to reconciliation following years of acrimonious litigation between trust beneficiaries and the United States.”

On Mrs. Cobell’s request, the government also gave $60 million to create the Indian Education Scholarship Fund for Indians to attend college and vocational schools.

Mrs. Cobell was awarded $2 million. Her lawyers received $99 million, a figure that struck many Indians as too high.

“The settlement isn’t perfect,” Mrs. Cobell said. “I do not think it compensates all for all the losses sustained, but I do think it is fair and it is reasonable. That is what matters: A fair resolution has been achieved.”

Elouise Catherine Pepion was born Nov. 5, 1945, on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana, situated on the eastern edge of the Glacier National Park. Her Indian name was Yellow Bird Woman.

She spent two years at Montana State University before leaving to care for her mother, who was dying of cancer. In 1968, she left the reservation and worked as an accountant at a television station in Seattle before becoming the Blackfeet treasurer in 1976.

Twelve years later, she helped open the Blackfeet National Bank, which was the first national bank on a reservation and the first to be owned by an Indian tribe. Today, it is the Native American Bank and is owned by 26 tribal nations.

Survivors include her husband, Alvin Cobell of Blacktail, Mont.; a son, Turk Cobell of Las Vegas; a brother; three sisters; and two granddaughters.

In the years Mrs. Cobell’s lawsuit was in court, she spent much of her time meeting with Indians across the country to gather support. Many joined her cause.

“They stand up and cheer,” Mrs. Cobell told the New York Times in 2004, “because finally someone stood up for justice.”