Turk Cobell accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 22 in honor of his mother, Elouise Cobell.

‘Elouise Cobell is my hero’: Awarded Posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom

Tanya H. Lee

On November 22, President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor to Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet. Her son, Turk Cobell, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his mother’s behalf. “It is a very exciting day for all of our family who are here in Washington,” said Cobell on the morning of the presentation ceremony.

In 1996, Elouise Cobell became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging the U.S. government had failed to pass on to half a million individual American Indian landowners the royalties and fees they had earned under oil, timber and mineral leases negotiated and administered by federal agencies.

Cobell eventually won a $3.4-billion negotiated settlement on behalf of the plaintiffs, but the case dragged on for years, with the U.S. marshaling all of the considerable resources at its disposal to delay the court proceedings and avoid accounting for the funds, which probably totaled in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Ambassador Keith Harper, U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Human Rights Council, was a lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

“I cannot think of a person who deserves this more. She was a courageous soldier for justice. She spent an incredible amount of time and her entire spirit to ensure 500,000 individual Indians received a measure of justice. She knew it would not be perfect, but if she didn’t stand up they wouldn’t get anything. I am deeply honored to have worked with her,” said Harper, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

The Cobell Settlement, which included $1.4 billion in payments to the individual plaintiffs, a $1.9-billion land buy-back program to return individually-owned fractionated lands to the control of tribes and a scholarship program for undergraduate and graduate students, was signed by President Obama in December 2010.

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI special agent, deputy director of BIA law enforcement, and is currently president of Lamar Associates. He said: “Elouise Cobell saw a wrong and decided to step forward to do something about it. Always we have a choice to do something or do nothing, and doing nothing always offers no risk. Elouise knew early on that stepping forward to expose decades of the government’s gross mismanagement of our precious resources was going to take a personal toll, but she courageously pressed on.

“As the years went by, she was more vigorously attacked and still she continued the fight. The government fought to mitigate their devious behavior while the plaintiffs’ attorneys fought to demonstrate the true scope of the damage done. In the end some battles were won and lost by both sides, but at the end of the day it was demonstrated without question the government willfully pillaged the coffers on Indian country. In the end, thousands have received checks, thousands will be educated into the future, tribes’ land base will be strengthened and we have the satisfaction of exposing epic misdeeds—all because one determined woman made the choice to take courageous action. Elouise Cobell, may you rest in peace with the warriors of our nations.”

Cobell passed on in 2011, less than a year after the president signed the settlement and before any restitution had been paid to Indian people. By the end of 2015, nearly $1.2 billion had been paid out to individual Indians. According to a status report issued in November 2016, nearly $900 million had been paid out to purchase the equivalent of 1.7 million acres of fractionated land interests. Roughly $40 million has been paid into the scholarship fund.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, recommended Cobell for the Medal of Freedom. “Elouise Cobell was a champion for change and a fierce advocate for Native American families,” Tester said in a statement. “Elouise has now joined some of the most influential Americans in our nation’s history by receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and her legacy is guaranteed to live on for generations to come.”

Tester’s compatriot, Denis Juneau, Blackfeet, ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as Montana’s at-large representative in 2016. Had she won, she would have been the first Native American woman to serve in the House. Juneau said: “Elouise Cobell is my hero. Her toughness, perseverance and ability to steadfastly stand on the side of justice definitely makes her a woman warrior. Knowing Elouise is receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom makes me proud to be an American Indian woman from the Blackfeet Nation.”

During Tuesday’s presentation of medals, President Obama said he chose as recipients those who have “lifted our spirits, strengthened our union and pushed us toward progress.” Cobell, he said, wanted for Indians the “equal treatment [that is] at the heart of the American promise.”

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