Elouise Cobell, rest in peace

  • Paul VanDevelder

 

updated Oct. 26, 2011

It is the rare person who gets to be enshrined in the pantheon of heroes.  I remember the Herblock cartoon that came out the day after Dwight Eisenhower died.  It showed acres of white crosses at Arlington National Cemetery, with the caption: "Pass the word, it's Ike."

Across Indian Country this week, from Windowrock to Whiteshield to Lame Deer, the "Indian telegraph" hummed with a similar message: "Pass the word, it's Elouise."

Elouise Cobell, a warrior in every sense of the word -- she showed devotion, courage, willingness to sacrifice her life and dreams for the good of the tribe -- died of cancer Oct. 16, at the age of 65.  She finally met an adversary that she could not conquer.

This untimely dénouement came just months after her heart, mind and spirit were declared the victors in a 15-year-long battle with the most formidable foe of all -- the federal government.  Cobell's remarkable saga started in 1994, when she discovered suspicious irregularities in her mineral royalty reports. Royalties owed to her and members of her family by the federal government were not showing up as credits in their annual statements. As she soon discovered, she was not alone.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in 1996, she detailed her shocking discovery: For 100 years, the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their many agents in the extractive industries had been stealing from the poor and giving to the rich at the expense of Cobell and her 375,000 Indian co-plaintiffs, defrauding them of mineral royalties worth $50 billion, Price-Waterhouse's best guestimate.

The irregularity she found in her credit statement had turned into a big deal indeed.

In 2011, she won the battle and settled for $3.4 billion.  She didn't get the whole enchilada, but she and her co-plaintiffs got a healthy piece of it.  And they had the satisfaction of knowing they'd won the largest class-action lawsuit ever brought against the federal government -- not bad for a middle-aged community organizer and banker from Browning, Mont., who spent much of her life on the skinny side of thin, wondering how she was going to feed her kids, buy retreads for her truck or patch the roof over her kitchen before the snow flew.

Tributes to Elouise Cobell have been pouring in from every quarter. She's getting far more attention from the national media in death than she ever got from them during her life.  All of the big outlets have published glowing tributes, and the lawsuit will go down in history. But I wonder what she would think about all of this glory, given the brush-off she received from the national press for over a decade. Probably, she'd just shrug and chuckle.

Over the years I wrote dozens of stories about her long-lasting fight against the Interior Department, but no East Coast editor ever saw it as a story worth sharing. Perhaps the reason they ignored her had something to do with why she brought the lawsuit in the first place: She wanted to shine a bright light into the untidy corners of democracy in America.

Cobell's investigation into the mineral royalty accounts demonstrated once again that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been usually achieved in mainstream society by denying those so-called "unalienable rights" to Indians, African Americans, Hispanics, Chinese, and others who somehow do not fit in.

I have no idea what words her family members will carve on Elouise Cobell's tombstone. I hope it's something endearing and funny and irrepressible, like the woman herself.  Something like: "See you all real soon."

Personally, I think a fitting epitaph was written eight years ago by Royce Lamberth, a conservative west Texas judge appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan. He made the first big ruling in favor of Cobell and plaintiffs, in 2003.

"Alas," he wrote in words you will probably never hear again from a federal judge, "our modern Interior Department has time and again demonstrated that it is 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. ... For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilations, policy programs, and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians are merely the echoes of a horrible, bigoted government-past that has been sanitized by the good deeds of more recent history, this case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few."

Yes, that would do it nicely.  Elouise Cobell, rest in peace.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the op-ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of American's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...