Indian Country just lost one its greatest female warriors. Elouise Cobell died Sunday, Oct. 16 from cancer. I was honored when asked to speak about her accomplishments on Sept. 24 in Blackfeet Country at the Harvest Moon Ball. I would like to now share those words here in memory of Elouise. — Jodi Rave
(Note: The Cobell family has not yet announced funeral arrangements. Elouise Cobell was born on the Blackfeet Reservation on Nov. 5, 1945. She was one of eight children.
Her survivors include: her husband, Alvin Cobell, a son, Turk Cobell and his wife Bobbie, two grandchildren, Olivia, and Gabriella, a brother, Dale Pepion, three sisters, Julene Kennerly, Joy Ketah and Karen Powell.)
Elouise Cobell is a wonderful example of a person who embodies tonight’s Harvest Moon Ball theme — the past, present and future. Consider the historical scope and the far reaching impact of the work taken on by Elouise, a renowned Blackfeet woman from this community. Like many great leaders in history, she has earned fame for a basic reason. She put herself last as she pursued justice first on behalf of other people. If you are a woman of substance, you speak your mind unafraid of the consequences.
Well, maybe you’re a little afraid — — but you understand the fight you’ve chosen to take on isn’t about you.
Elouise has earned many prestigious tributes over the years. Most recently, she has inspired some prominent U.S. senators to seek this nation’s highest civilian award for her, a Congressional Gold Medal.
Most people associate Elouise with the Cobell versus Salazar case, a landmark class-action suit she filed in 1996 to seek an accounting of Indian trust funds, which had been historically mismanaged by the Interior Department for more than a century. But many people don’t realize Elouise has done much more than fight the U.S. government in courtrooms harbored in the nation’s capital. She also has a full-time job as executive director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, an economic development position that has been a springboard leading to the completion of many successful business projects. The work she has done locally, regionally and nationally has inspired natives and non-natives across the United States.
I recently asked some friends and colleagues what came to mind when they thought of Elouise. Here are some words they used: Role model… tenacious, fearless…graceful…poised…. caretaker of the land… a buffalo… forced removal… committed… brave… a game changer.
When I asked a Muskogee Creek man the question, his first words were “Grandma Sally.” He said his Grandma Sally lived in Oklahoma. She was a poor woman — a poor woman who owned an oil well — yet workers in the Bureau of Indian Affairs told her she owned a non-producing well — even though trucks designed to carry oil continually arrived at night on her land. Sally’s family asked the BIA for all the records related to her land dating from 1935 to 1992. All their requests were denied even after they used the Freedom of Information Act.
It was these kinds of stories that led Elouise to file suit in Washington D.C. on behalf of Indian landowners. The case, then known as Cobell v. Babbitt, sought an accounting of Individual Indian Money accounts involving upwards of a half million native people. After 15 litigious years in court, Congress and President Barack Obama approved the settlement for $3.4 billion in December 2010 — the largest settlement with the government in American history.
Nevada Senator Harry Reid announced this September that he is co-sponsoring legislation to award Elouise the Congressional Gold Medal. Here’s what Senator Reid had to say: “Elouise Cobell’s hard work has immeasurably improved the lives of many American Indians, including thousands living in Nevada. I’m honored to recommend her for the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of her outstanding and enduring contributions and her tireless pursuit of justice.”
U.S. Senators certainly aren’t the first to recognize Elouise. In 1997, she was awarded the “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Fellowship Program, a recognition given to outstanding individuals. At this time, all eyes were on Elouise as she had dug in her heels for a David-and Goliath-fight against the U.S. Government.
I first met Elouise in 1999 while working at the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper in Nebraska. As a national reporter, I have interviewed thousands of people and reported on scores of important political and social events. Many people I talked with offered predictable quotes. Even though they could have made a difference, they didn’t want to rock the boat. They were most interested in self-preservation. I can’t remember many of these people because they are the kind of people who are easy to forget.
Not Elouise. She was a reporter’s dream. She was honest and not trying to impress anybody. She’s always been a feisty woman unafraid to say what’s on her mind. Moreover, she has always spoken wisely.
This is a trait that has gained other people’s attention; in 2002 she flew to Mexico City where she was the recipient of the International Women’s Forum award, “Women Who Make a Difference.” Elouise has gained international fame for working on behalf of American Indians. Her motivation has always been clear: Elouise wanted Native people to enjoy a higher quality other than the one they encountered after forced removal from traditional homelands. None of the work Elouise has done has ever been easy.
This spring she told a University of Montana audience about the early years of filing what is commonly known as the Cobell lawsuit. She said, “I remember driving home that night and saying, “God, why did you do this? You shouldn’t have sued them.”
But on her way home, she looked to the west towards Ghost Ridge on the Blackfeet Reservation where five hundred Blackfeet starved to death after the government hoarded their food rations. Elouise said: “That’s why I was doing it. I wanted to make a change. I wanted to change the way the government treated individual Indians.”
Again, the Cobell lawsuit is only one of the challenges Elouise has pursued and accomplished. She had a professional background is in accounting and community development.
In 2004 The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development presented her with the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award. In 2005 she received a “Cultural Freedom Fellowship” from the Lannan Foundation.
Elouise, the great granddaughter of Mountain Chief, a legendary Blackfeet leader, was one of the lead organizers in the formation of the Blackfeet Reservation Development Fund, Inc. She also served as chairperson for the Blackfeet National Bank, the first national bank located on an Indian reservation and owned by a Native American tribe. Cobell also served for thirteen years as the Treasurer for the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana.
Here are a few more highlights of the awards and recognition she’s received from across the country:
- In 2007 she was one of ten people given the AARP Impact Award — for making the world a better place.
- She also founded the first Land Trust in Indian Country. Elouise also serves as a Trustee for the Nature Conservancy of Montana.
- Among her accolades — Elouise is the recipient of two honorary degrees, one from Montana State University and the other from Dartmouth College.
I’ve listed a few highlights of Elouise’s many accomplishments.
I’ll will conclude by reminding people about her deep connection to family and community, which led to the creation of tonight’s special event, the Harvest Moon Ball, an annual art auction held each fall here in Glacier National Park. She was moved to tap into the artistic strengths of the Native community after talking with her artist brother, Ernie Pepion. The result is this ball and creation of the Blackfeet Community Foundation, which has raised more than 400,000 dollars on sales of American Indian artwork. That amount reached nearly a half million dollars before the stock market tumbled. More importantly, the money from art sales is then returned to the community in the form of grants. At the same time, the Harvest Moon Ball auction provides a platform to promote the work of upcoming as well as established indigenous artists.
Elouise Cobell has been making headlines across the United States for many years, most notably for her commitment to American Indian people. Please share in Elouise’s vision and enjoy your evening here at the Harvest Moon Ball.
Thank you. (Speech given Sept. 24, 2011 by Jodi Rave at the Harvest Moon Ball in East Glacier, Mont.)