Elouise Cobell

Elouise Cobell, 65, Walks On

Rob Capriccioso

The Indian woman who fought the U.S. government—and won—has lost her battle with cancer. Blackfeet Nation tribal citizen Elouise Cobell passed away Sunday evening at age 65 in Great Falls, Montana. Diagnosed with cancer last year, Cobell reportedly had surgery in April at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for what she described then as “a serious cancer.” The type of cancer has not been released.

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.

Keith Harper, another lawyer on the Cobell team, offered the following words soon after her passing: “Elouise was, in a word, remarkable, as were her contributions and unfailing courage.  She was the source of strength for the Cobell case and the reason why justice was finally obtained for half a million Native people in the form of the largest settlement of any suit against the United States in history. With any moment of progressive social change, there is always an iconic figure who will define that movement—the person who refused to get to the back of the bus.  For Indian people, for this importance cause, for this indelible change, that person was Elouise Cobell.  I will miss her deeply.”

Jackie Trotchie, a friend of Cobell’s and an Indian advocate in Montana, offered the following statement upon her loss: “Elouise will always be remembered by me as a woman who fought the battle many of us didn’t know how to fight, and she did it with integrity despite the bullets to her chest and the arrows in her back.  She will be remembered as the one and only modern-day female warrior who honored all those individual land owners who passed before her.”

Democratic U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both of Montana, introduced legislation in early September to award Cobell the Congressional Gold Medal, which has yet to be ratified. “Hundreds of thousands of American Indians will benefit due to Elouise’s dedication to justice, fairness and the trust responsibility of the U.S. government,” Tester said at the time. “Elouise refused to take ‘No’ for an answer and her tireless pursuit represents the standard by which we should award historic honors like the Congressional Gold Medal.”

“Elouise’s hard work on behalf of not only Montana’s tribes, but for American Indians everywhere deserves thanks and the highest recognition available,” Baucus said. “Generations to come will benefit because Elouise stood up and demanded a better future for American Indians.”

Tester offered the following statement after her passing: “Elouise Cobell was a star—truly a guiding light that will always lead the way for all Americans who fight for justice and fairness.  Elouise’s tireless leadership set this nation on a new course, and what she accomplished reminds us that any person in any part of this country has the power to stand up and right a wrong, no matter how difficult it may be… Future generations will learn about Elouise Cobell’s legacy and they will be inspired to follow her lead.  She will always be remembered as an American hero.”

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who signed on to co-sponsor the Congressional Medal legislation in mid-September, offered the following statement after her passing: “Elouise was an extraordinary American who made countless contributions to our country, which is why I believe she deserves the highest honor Congress can bestow upon a civilian. Indian Country–and the entire country–has lost an inspiring leader.”

In 1997, Cobell was awarded a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Fellows program, which she reportedly used to fund a portion of her lawsuit. In 2002, she received the International Women’s Forum award for “Women Who Make a Difference” in Mexico City. In 2004, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development presented gave her the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award. In 2005, she received a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. In 2007, she was awarded an AARP Impact Award. Earlier this year, she was named “Montana Citizen of the Year” by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.

Cobell was a banker, and one of the founders of the Native American Bank, based in Denver. Her experience in that field helped her understand the government’s mismanagement of trust funds, she said in interviews. She also served as executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp, the bank's nonprofit affiliate; and she served for 13 years as treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation. She was the co-chair of Native American Bank NA, and she was a former trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Cobell, along with her husband, Alvin Cobell, also operated a working ranch that produced cattle and crops.

She graduated from Great Falls Business College and attended Montana State University, from which she later received an honorary doctorate. She also had honorary degrees from Rollins College and Dartmouth College.

Her survivors include: her husband, Alvin; a son, Turk Cobell and his wife, Bobbie; two grandchildren, Olivia, and Gabriella; a brother, Dale Pepion; and three sisters, Julene Kennerly; Joy Ketah; and Karen Powell.


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psette's picture
Submitted by psette on
She has earned victory even in the face of death. She has benefited a myriad of N.A., and put the US law to work for the N.A. people. She will go down in the history books as one who enacted change from the federal government.

fineartmike's picture
Submitted by fineartmike on
I did a painting of her meeting President Obama, a few months ago. This is so sad. I have been trying to contact her to give her the original painting. So I now know why she did not contact me. If anyone knows her family, tell them I will give them the painting if they want. Thank You

notnek's picture
Submitted by notnek on
My hearts is sad for Ms Cobell was truly a warrior for the people. I know iits-tsi-pah-ta-pii-op has welcomed her back. Salute--- Yellow Bird Woman

candyo's picture
Submitted by candyo on
My prayers are with the members of the Cobell family. Eloise Cobell was persistent in her pursuit of a better road for all of Indian Country and the beneficiaries who were tricked out of their inheritance established by US govt over a hundred years ago. Her tenacity and strength was apparent for all the uncalled for adversity to right a wrong. She fought tirelessly against the whole US Govt for the malfeaseance and never gave up or faltered but like the buffalo she stood her ground... She was truly a "Woman Warrior".

michellejake's picture
Submitted by michellejake on
My sincere sympathy. Elouise, you are a strong Native American woman. Thank you for helping your people. May the Great Spirit Bless You. Michelle Miller Jake The Navajo Nation

wanbli's picture
Submitted by wanbli on
Ms. Cobell has reaped her reward in going behind the backs of our poor red nationhoods to steal more money from us with the United States. Can you believe this woman and the people and lawyers around her, who steal from our ancestors and our and her own children. What brainwashing by the US with her....Her and her lawyer have sold they're her soul for money and the rewards of this oppressive and genocidal empire for, fame, privileges, the comfort of the American Life Style endorsement of Her Slave Master called,: The United States of America. What hypocrisy by the US Congress coming out of another, Thief called, Harry Reids big mouth after stealing money that was due to First Nation with the help of this gatekeeper, Cobell. A Congressman that continues to steal from the Ochiti Sakowin Tetuan Oyate (The Seventh Counsel Fires), better known as the Great Sioux Nation. Who as of now is help his white citizens political constituents of North Dakota to steal more of our Treaty Oils to pay for they're little warfares of greed in court fighting: Red Sovereign First Nations the true land owners and keepers of this continent and its resources: who will never stop fighting this corrupt and soulless America to get back what belongs to Red People's. Nothing on this land or below it belongs to the citizens and they're government called the United States of Lie's!!!! Our Oil all over this continent does not belong to the United States or the state of North Dakota Oil!!!!! The Creator did not choose or placed the US government or Cobell and her Lawyers on our red homelands to steal from our ancestors and our way of life and our red futures, so they could go run around and drink the blood our red people with this empire, and plot how they would divided up the Red Peoples money, lands and way of life between the BIA, IRA Tribal Governments. Which again will be used to pay to maintain the same oppressive politics and mechanisms that undermine the true hearts, minds, souls, bodies, and spirit of truly authentic sovereign red nationhoods. To Commit Genocide knowingly!!!!!Do you think this is the Creators will? Cobell might have honor with the US, a false nationhood founded on violence, murder, destruction, betrayal, lying and death of our innocent red peoples and red sovereign nationhoods, ordained by a loving, honest, caring compassionate and just Creator but forever she will be forgotten in the heart of God. She didn't understand the penalty to betray the Creator, genuine traditional peoples and our leadership who truly speak on the behave of creator and earth and all living and non living things, and the red lands of our ancestors when she decide to work within this corrupt American genocidal paradigm. Now she will pay and many others with her will pay the price of her ignorance and greedy lifestyle and the lusts of white American people to dominate other human beings, dehumanize and in the end kill, "RED LIFE." They thought they could earn it but its a gift to all mankind, living or non living beings on this planet, called Mother, so now their dead and they're work of these will die also. This is the Oyate of Earth hope and it's happening. This is our generation, the generation of Red Peoples and Red Nationhood's and oppress nations of earth that are oppressed by US interventionism and exploitationism, who will l not sellout to the white America historical genocidal attractions with death. The Children of Creator and Earth are the Majority!!!!

wanbli's picture
Submitted by wanbli on
This is our generation, the generation of Red Peoples and Red Nationhood’s and oppress nations of earth that are oppressed by US dehumanizing and decadence attitudes and racist and class, dehumanizing policies, interventionism and exploitation of Red Life, land and resources. Red People's who will never for all the money and endorsements of white America will never sellout to the white America historical genocidal attractions with death and stupidness and ignorance en-exchanged for the "Life" that the Creator prepared for our common red destinies, as a free peoples. This is who we are "Hope", Healing, Life, and Genuine Freedom as the "Flowering Hoop of Life"; to this wounded planet by the American dream to dominate life not release it!!! The Red Children of Creator and Earth are the Majority!!!! And the Traditional Prophecies are happening!!!! So wake up my Oyate, your redemption draws very, very very near.!