HELENA – March is Women’s History Month, and in Montana, there have been some extraordinary women who have made history.
Reporter Mikenzie Frost has the story of Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet native who took on the federal government — and how her son helps share her legacy.
Elouise was a champion for change and advocate for fighting for what’s right. Born in 1945 and raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, Elouise was the treasurer for the tribe and helped her community with tax preparations, banking and other financial recommendations.
Elouise’s son Turk says she was there supporting him in any basketball game and involved in his school.
“Probably not too different than a lot of mothers out there,” Turk said. But what is different — the case known as Cobell v. Salazar which was first filed in 1996. Elouise was financially literate and made it a point to know the books.
“She would be approached by a lot of elders asking of help to understand their IIM accounts (Individual Indian Money), their land holdings, why they weren’t getting paid and knocking down the BIA doors with the Department of Interior asking them questions and basically she was getting stonewalled,” Turk said.
Elouise wanted to know why tribal members weren’t getting their money for land holdings from the federal government.
Turk explained one interaction with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the beginning of this case. “In exact words, she was told she’s Indian and she’s too dumb to understand how this works.
Elouise was pushed aside but her strong will and determination resulted in her trying again. she went to the Clinton Administration only to get stonewalled again by then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
“She decided that day — after she went and sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — that she had had enough and she was going to sue the federal government,” Turk recalled.
She did — and fought for her community, “that was just in her DNA. I think the fundamental reason is that it was wrong,” Turk told MTN News. Elouise negotiated a settlement in 2009 with the Obama Administration and in 2010 Congress passed a bill appropriating $3.4 billion for a settlement.
“It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t financial, it was look – there are people living and dying in poverty and it shouldn’t have to be like that. the federal government is taking their money and it’s wrong and it needs to be fixed,” Turk said.
The federal government has spent about $100 million to buy back the equivalent of 1.7 million acres in fractioned land interests, restoring lands to tribal control.
Elouise died in 2011, but her legacy did not. And in 2016, Turk got a phone call, “it’s pretty surreal when the White House calls.” The White House was calling to say Elouise would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom.
“It’s really awe-inspiring.” “this recognition doesn’t happen to many Americans,” Turk said.
He went to Washington DC to accept the award on his mother’s behalf and when President Barack Obama put that medal on Turk, his mom’s legacy was truly just beginning.
“The longest lasting piece of this settlement that her legacy will be known for is the Cobell Scholarship Fund,” Turk said, adding that it’s funded over 1,000 Native American and Alaskan Native students over the last four years.
“We fully intend to fund native students for many, many years to come,” Turk said.
Now, more than 20 years after the battle began, Turk says, “her unwavering effort to help people that may not have the means to help themselves in unprecedented.”
And to him, there’s only one way to describe her mother, “she really is…she’s a hero.”
The Cobell lawsuit, which is known as one of the largest class action suits in American history, has around 500,000 plaintiffs.
Reporting by Mikenzie Frost for MTN News