The burial of Elouise Cobell

  • Elouise Cobell died on Oct. 22, 2011.

    Mountains and Minds, MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham
  • Elouise Cobell filed her class action suit in 1996 and originally thought it would take only three years to resolve the issues. She joined Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder in making the settlement announcement.

    Tami A. Heilemann-DOI
 

Elouise Cobell filed her class action suit in 1996 and originally thought it would take only three years to resolve the issues. She joined Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder in making the settlement announcement. Tami A. Heilemann-DOI

On Oct. 22, Elouise Cobell was buried on the Blacktail Ranch where she and her husband had lived. Blackfeet and Catholic prayers were said, and Hutterite girls sang hymns, and the Montana wind never stopped blowing. Some thought that Napi -- the "Old Man," the supernatural trickster, troublemaker and ultimate helper of the Blackfeet -- was present, too.

Elouise Pepion Cobell -- Inokesquetee saki or Yellowbird Woman -- was a member of the Blackfeet Nation, the great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief. She was a rancher and Blackfeet banker, a MacArthur Foundation fellow, and, most famously, the lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Salazar and The Department of the Interior. When she died Oct. 16 in a Great Falls, Mont., hospice, after a long bout with cancer, she was 65.

The Blacktail Ranch lies on the rolling prairie of the Blackfeet Reservation, within sight of the peaks of Glacier National Park. Every time Cobell drove to Browning to work as executive director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, she passed Starvation Ridge, where nearly one-quarter of the Blackfeet Nation died during the winter of 1883-'84 because the inept Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to provide treaty rations of grain and cattle.

Cobell often flew to Washington, D.C., for her work on Cobell v. Salazar, the largest class-action lawsuit in U.S. history, filed in 1996 against the federal government over its mishandling of $50 billion in mineral royalties owed to tribal members. It took 15 years to resolve the century-long mess of lost and destroyed records, missing payments and inaccurate accounting of Indian Trust funds. The suit persisted through the tenures of four Interior Department secretaries: Babbitt, Norton, Kempthorne, and finally, Salazar. It was all but settled for $3.4 billion, awaiting congressional appropriations -- and President Obama's signature on the law -- when she passed away.

That morning, thousands of mourners packed the service at the Browning High School gym. The night before, the Crazy Dog Society escorted the casket to the high school for the rosary service, stopping four times to sing and dance a warrior song, because that's what Elouise Cobell was: a warrior in the realms of the law, the banks and the economy of the Blackfeet Reservation.

In the afternoon at the Blacktail Ranch, people waited in their cars out of the wind. The air was clear; 30 miles to the west, the peaks of Glacier were shrouded in clouds dumping the first winter snow.

Funeral directors unloaded flowers next to a white tepee, its poles squeaking in the wind, and lined up folding chairs, which the wind blew down.

Hutterite girls in bright blue and purple taffeta dresses and scarves sheltered out of the wind on the west side of the Cobells' small ranch house. A yellow school bus brought them from the nearby Birch Creek Colony, home to a communal branch of Anabaptists. They'd come to pay their respects along with local ranchers, Blackfeet from across the reservation and VIPs from Washington, D.C.

The ranch house itself had lost a few pieces of siding and much paint to the wind over the years. (In this part of Montana, wind blows freight trains off the tracks, and school bus trips are cancelled not because of snow but because the wind might topple the buses.) Cobell's MacArthur grant money went to the long-running legal case, not her family's ranch house or cattle operation.

In the lee of the house, I talked with a banker who had driven 900 miles from Denver. He'd worked with Cobell to form the first Native American-owned bank in Browning in 1987, 10 years before the famous lawsuit was filed.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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