It’s not every day that national leaders pay tribute to someone who spearheaded a cause that will cost the government several billion dollars.
That distinction goes, however, to the late Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Interior and Treasury departments that prompted a $3.4 billion settlement to make up for their mismanagement of an Indian trust fund. Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe from Montana, died late Sunday from cancer.
In a statement today, President Obama said he and First Lady Michelle Obama were “saddened” to learn of Cobell’s passing.
“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,” said Obama, who last year signed the law that put the settlement in place.
Also praising Cobell was current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who called her “a hero in every sense of the word.”
“She sought justice to address historical wrongs that had weighed on our nation’s conscience and was a significant force for change.”
Recognition was a long time coming.
In 1996, Cobell and four other Indians filed suit to force the government to account for billions of dollars received for oil and gas leases and other uses of Indian lands held in trust by the United States, according to an obituary released by her family. The suit eventually became a class-action case; the ensuing legal odyssey revealed government record-keeping so slipshod that a judge determined that Indians could never get a full reckoning.
The $3.4 billion negotiated settlement includes $1.5 billion to compensate land owners, along with $1.9 billion for a voluntary buyback program to consolidate land interests, according to the Interior Department. Because legal challenges to the settlement are continuing, however, no money has actually been disbursed at this point, said Bill McAllister, a spokesman for Cobell’s family.