By Rob Capriccioso
Born one of eight children on the Blackfeet Reservation on Nov. 5, 1945, Cobell was a great granddaughter of Mountain Chief, a historical Indian leader of the West, and was given the Indian name “Yellow Bird Woman.” She became well-known throughout the United States after she filed a historic lawsuit in 1996 with four other Native Americans, alleging that the federal government had mismanaged the trust funds of more than 500,000 American Indians. After a long court battle, Cobell and her lawyers agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement in December 2009 that Congress ratified in December of 2010. President Barack Obama then signed the agreement into law, and U.S. Senior District Judge Thomas F. Hogan granted final approval this June. Final financial awards are pending appeal due to some controversial aspects of the settlement. As the appeals process continues, U.S. Department of the Interior officials have been holding consultation sessions with tribal leaders and citizens on aspects of the agreement.
When Obama met with Cobell in the Oval Office last December, he lauded her hard work, and upon her death, issued the following statement: “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Elouise Cobell yesterday. Elouise spoke out when she saw that the Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect on behalf of more than 300,000 of her fellow Native Americans. Because she did, I was able to sign into law a piece of legislation that finally provided a measure of justice to those who were affected. That law also creates a scholarship fund to give more Native Americans access to higher education, and give tribes more control over their own lands. Elouise helped to strengthen the government to government relationship with Indian Country, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family, and all those who mourn her passing.”
Despite the controversies related to that settlement, Cobell was well-respected in Indian country because of her willingness to take on a battle so huge. Many times throughout her case, the federal government placed formidable roadblocks in her way, but she pressed on. Her lead lawyer, Dennis Gingold, called her a “warrior woman” soon after the settlement was announced.
In 2005, she received a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation, an award that cited her persistence in bringing to light the “more than a century of government malfeasance and dishonesty” with the government-run Indian Trust.
Two years later, she was one of 10 people given an AARP Impact Award (for making the world a better place), and in 2004 the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development presented her with the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award. This year, she was named "Montana Citizen of the Year" by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.
She received the 2002 International Women’s Forum award for “Women Who Make a Difference,” in Mexico City.