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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Remembering a Native American Activist

Air Date: Week of

Elouise Cobell was also known by her Indian name, Yellow Bird Woman. (Montana State University, Photo by Kelly Gorham.)

Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana fought the federal government for 15 years in a class action lawsuit that charged the Interior Department mismanaged Indian trust funds and owed Native Americans billions of dollars. The historic legal campaign resulted in a multi-billion dollar settlement. Ms. Cobell died recently at the age of 65. Her friend Carol Cross Juneau talks about the life of this “warrior for justice.”


GELLERMAN: For 15 years Elouise Cobell battled the US government. She filed a class action lawsuit charging the federal government mismanaged the Indian Trust Fund going back to the 1800’s and cheated Native Americans out of tens of billions of dollars due them for timber, oil and minerals taken from their land.

Just this summer, the government agreed to a 3.4 billion dollar settlement and President Obama apologized. For leading the fight, Elouise Cobell was declared a warrior of the Blackfeet Nation, of which she was a member. Now the Native American community has lost that warrior. Elouise Cobell - also known by her Indian name Yellow Bird Woman - died earlier this month. Carol Cross Juneau of Great Falls Montana was a member of the class action lawsuit and family friend.

JUNEAU: You know I lived on the Blackfeet Reservation from 1974 till just about a year ago we moved to Great Falls, which is not too far from there. And so I knew Elouise and her family for probably the last, you know, 30 years or so. So they’re long-time family friends.

GELLERMAN: What kind of a person was she?

JUNEAU: I think of her as a person who was just really willing to stand up and fight for American Indian rights and that takes a lot of courage and that takes a lot of bravery. You have to be absolutely determined to not give up - brave, courageous - those are good words for her.

Photograph of Elouise in front of mountains. (Native American Bank)

GELLERMAN: I want to play you something - this is Ms. Cobell, and this is when she was talking to a group in 2008. The lawsuit still had a couple years to go, and she’s talking about the trustee, which is the US government. I want you to hear this:

[Audio of Ms. Cobell provided by the National Rural Assembly/Center for Rural Strategies]

COBELL: When you take on the United States government, like we had to in this case, you have to pick up the pieces and you have to work so hard in those trenches, and you just keep on working because you are never, ever going to let this happen again. There can never be 121 years that our trustee can get away with never giving an Indian person an accounting of their money. So we’ve got to make sure that we stay in their faces! (Applause.)

JUNEAU: Gosh, wasn’t that great? Yeah. She was not afraid. And I think that’s an excellent example of Elouise being willing to speak out, to know that justice was not being done for American Indian people and she was able to carry that message so well. It’s inspiring, isn’t it?

GELLEMAN: She was extraordinarily accomplished. She had a farm, she ran the Blackfeet National Bank, she served as Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, the National Museum of the American Indian…

JUNEAU: Yeah. She was well known and well respected, I think, and, you know, sought after for her willingness to be a leader in American Indian country. If you think of the injustice that was done to the American Indian people as it is, it’s not just the governments, it’s the United States of America that didn’t live up to its obligations.

Photograph of Elouise Cobell at the oversight hearing. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL)

And, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs that was assigned to ensure that if resources were due to members American Indian tribes throughout the nation for their resources that were taken, it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen effectively, and there were errors made, and there were records mismanaged. And so, it’s not just the BIA, I guess, when we look at it. And, it’s not just the United States government. I think it is kind of a reflection on America. And so, her loss, is an American loss.

GELLERMAN: Talking to us about Elouise Cobell who died earlier this month, at the age of 65, is Carol Cross Juneau. Ms. Juneau, thank you so very much.

JUNEAU: You're welcome very much. And, thank you for taking the time to honor Elouise, you know, with this, so - that’s great.

GELLERMAN: You can learn more about Elouise Cobell at our website - LOE dot ORG.



Indian Trust

Statement from Secretary Salazar on the Passing of Elouise Cobell


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