Elouise Cobell and I met at a Society of Professional Journalists regional conference in Missoula, Montana at the end of April, 2009. She was a keynote speaker for the “Covering Native America” panel. I’d been following her landmark case against the U.S. government for three years previous and was excited to hear her speak. I made a pair of dream catcher earrings and gifted her as we met, which is our custom. She gifted me back with a copy of “Seven Lodges,” a guide to Montana tribal tourism.
She said in her presentation that she was not fighting just for us Native Americans, because if our government was able to get away with such mismanagement, it was just a matter of time before the same happened to all Americans. She said she was fighting for all of us. She blazed a path for others to fight schemes designed to take away our freedoms, deprive us of our liberties and take that which is rightfully ours.
We discussed my investigation into those who abuse their positions of public trust for private gain, to include those who abuse our nonprofit system. I explained that I have found the biggest nonprofit fraud of our time; prostitution at taxpayer expense and how a handful of these individuals went on fishing trips to Brazil for sex with girls over 13. When I told her the girls were Indian, we locked eyes and she encouraged me to keep fighting.
Thank you, Elouise, for your efforts and for your fine example.
You stood up to those who thought they were powerful because of their deep pockets, stuffed with enablers masquerading as attorneys, so willing to suppress the rights of those so violated.
I hope to prevail as you did, Elouise, fighting against corrupt systems controlled by secrecy. These actions, as we agreed, are committed by those of the worst of the worst. You have proven that these types, those sworn to uphold the law, are not above the law.
In your honor, I will continue to fight just as you did because if we don’t, who will?
May you continue to walk in beauty and fly with love.
Elouise Cobell walked on last Sunday night, leaving behind a legacy of doing the impossible. She passed away at age 65 in a hospital in Great Falls, Montana, of cancer.
According to the Great Falls Tribune:
“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, according to Bill McAllister, Cobell's publicist. For her battle with the federal government, Cobell was honored in 2000 as a warrior of the Blackfeet Nation, a distinction usually reserved for war veterans.”
Elouise has been hailed as a hero, a warrior and a pioneer because was the lead plaintiff in the largest class action lawsuit ever. She was an accountant, a banker and was the treasurer for the Blackfeet nation for 13 years. In 1987, she helped found the first U.S. bank owned by a tribe, now called the Native American Bank. Ten years later, in 1997, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation provided her with a $300,000 "genius grant" that helped fund the lawsuit.
In the spirit of David and Goliath, she sued the U.S. government to account for billions meant to compensate Native Americans over the last century for mineral, gold, oil and grazing resources on their land. These funds were found missing from the Department of Interior Indian trust fund and mismanaged by the Department of Treasury.
She fought for 15 years and secured a $3.4 billion settlement last December for 500,000 Native Americans, past and present, forced to survive without their payments from our government.
These payments were not a handout, restitution or repatriations.
These were payments based on an 1887 agreement that the United States would act as trustee and pay the Indians for the use of resources found on their land.
Indians were expected to live on the worst lands after the government put them on reservations. The 1887 agreement provided that they’d be paid for any resources found on or investments made from the royalties.
What happened over the past 123 years was yet another attempt by our government to defraud, cheat and steal from Native Americans.
More lies, deceptions and theft.
Elouise fought until the day she died to right these wrongs.
Robbing these Native American land holders of that which is rightfully theirs continued the pattern set by our founding fathers of breaking treaties and violating human rights, all in the name of greed and racial superiority. Or maybe it was “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that American expansionism superseded all moral and political doctrine, including any claims of Native American sovereignty.
The lack of record keeping prevented disbursements to the poorest people in America. Elouise’s legal victory exposed and destroyed this modern form of genocide, designed to exterminate though deliberate economic ruin.
Governments worldwide have watched the United States continue this since 1887, until Elouise secured a settlement with the government last December 9, 2010.
According to the original complaint, filed June 10, 1996 in Washington DC, the plaintiffs sought to “redress gross breaches of trust by the United States” by failing to account for Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts, held in trust by the U.S.”
When the complaint was filed, there was a balance of $450 million in the trust fund. She knew there should have been much more in the trust fund and for years, asked the Department of the Interior and the Treasury Department for an honest accounting of the funds. She tried to get answers from local and federal offices of the Department of Interior who provided no answers.
They told her “Just sue us.”
So she did.
Her complaint alleged that the U.S. failed to keep adequate records and failed to install an adequate accounting system including accounts receivable. It further alleged that the government destroyed documents and failed to account to the trust beneficiaries as to their money, investments and ownership.
Worse, it alleged that the government lost, dissipated or converted the funds for the United States’ own use and that defendants “have prevented, and combined and conspired with others to prevent, the special Trustee for American Indians, appointed pursuant to the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994, from carrying out duties and responsibilities conferred upon him by law to correct their unlawful practices and procedures with respect to IIM accounts.”
The complaint further explains that the “bulk of the funds held by the U.S. in trust for IIM account holders is derived ultimately from income from individual land allotments.” These allotments lasted until 1934, when the U.S. broke up Indian tribes and tribal lands. Many reservations were divided up into tracts of 80 or 160 acres, patented to individual Indians, with legal title held by the U.S. as trustee for the “allottee.” Many tracts produced income from the lease for grazing, farming, timber sales, and grants of oil, gas or mineral mining rights. It was this income that should have been paid to the IIM accounts.
The theft of these funds meant that tribal members were denied per capita payments after the lands and income were unlawfully used to generate:
Unpaid income from investment of funds.
Unpaid proceeds for land sales.
Unpaid income for rights of way.
Unpaid rent for allotments of aged or incompetent allottees.
Unpaid sales proceeds of allotments of incompetent Indians.
Unpaid money due to incompetent or orphan Indians.
Unpaid money accruing from the Department of Veteran Affairs or other government agencies to minors or incompetent adults.
Unpaid shares of tribal or trust funds.
Unpaid per capita annual payments to members of certain specified tribes.
Cobell v Salazar was settled on December 8, 2009 because the plaintiffs were able to prove that the U.S. failed to account for and keep records of the income from allotments and of the investment of moneys held in trust. The Plaintiffs were also able to prove that the U.S. failed to keep track of the ownership of such accounts as to assignment, bequest, device, and intestate succession. Additionally, the Plaintiffs were able to prove that the U.S. failed to maintain and/or provide adequate systems and controls to guard against error and dishonesty and that the government failed to account regularly and accurately to the beneficiaries as to the state of their accounts and pay them what they were entitled to because of the self-dealing and self-benefit from the mismanagement of the trust funds.
In other words, the government failed to “reconcile or audit the accounts, failed to provide accurate account balances or determine how much money should have been collected and credited to the IIM accounts or determine how much was collected and diverted to improper ends.“
In 1992, the GAO and Office of Management and Budget worked with the House Committee on Government Operations to issue “Misplaced Trust: The Bureau of Indian Affairs Mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund.” This led to Congress enacting the 1994 Act for the “benefit of plaintiffs and all other beneficiaries of the IIM accounts. The 1994 Act crated the office of the Special Trustee for American Indians as a sub-cabinet level officer appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, reporting directly to the Secretary of the Interior.”
The Special Trustee was supposed to come up with a comprehensive strategic plan for all phases of trust management, identify reforms and make sure the reforms led to the proper accounting for and investment of all trust fund monies and to prepare accurate and timely reports to account holders on a periodic basis regarding all collections, disbursements, investments and returns on investments to their accounts.” The 1994 Act gave the Special Trustee access to “all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, files and other material as well as to any officer and employee of the Interior Department and any officer or bureau thereof.”
Officers of the Department of Interior, the Department of Treasury and others of the administrations of Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush fought this lawsuit tooth and nail, to include destroying 162 boxes of documents, throwing out Special Trustees who supported the Indians and perjuring themselves in court, many times over.
According to the StarTribune:
“The government dug in. Over the next 14 years, there were more than 3,600 court filings, 220 days of trial, 80 published court decisions and 10 appeals until the 2009 breakthrough.”
When the lawsuit was filed, there were 387,000 IIM accounts, with at least 15, 599 duplicate accounts with the same number with many duplicate accounts with the same name recorded on 12 separate databases with no common database. There were more than 54,000 accounts containing over $46,000,000 for individuals with no address or no correct address.
From an Indian Trust Settlement press release:
“Under the terms of the Settlement in Cobell v. Salazar, the federal government will create a $1.5 billion Trust Accounting and Administration Fund and a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund. The Settlement also creates a $60 million federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth, and it includes a commitment by the federal government to appoint a commission that will oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets, going forward. This Settlement is believed to be the largest ever against the federal government and dwarfs the combined value of all judgments and Settlements of all Indian cases since the founding of this nation.”
In 2002, Elouise received the International Women's Forum award for "Women Who Make a Difference," in Mexico City.
Last June, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Dartmouth University.
From the ceremony’s remarks:
When your repeated requests for explanations and improvements went ignored, you became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government. You fought what many said was an impossible battle, persisting as the case dragged on through three presidential administrations. After more than a decade in the courts, you helped secure a $3.4 billion settlement that will bring some measure of justice to half a million Native Americans… Where others see deficits, you see opportunities. You founded not only the first land trust in Indian Country but also the first Native-owned bank on a reservation in the United States. That bank has had a measurable impact on your community, enabling the creation of dozens of new Indian-owned businesses. Its success eventually led to the founding of the Native American Bank, a joint enterprise of more than 20 tribal nations. You now serve as Executive Director of the bank's non-profit affiliate, the Native American Community Development Corporation, working with Indian communities to support sustainable economic development. Elouise, you have used your financial acumen to improve your community and make life better for countless Native people. You fought a David and Goliath battle and won. In recognition of your extraordinary bravery and determination, Dartmouth is proud to award you the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters.
According to Native Action Network co-founder, former Sen. Claudia Kauffman (D-Wash.):
“Just last month, Native Action Network presented the prestigious Sister Spirit Award to Elouise Cobell. This award was created in 2006 to recognize women forging new paths and new directions for Native People. To date, only three women have received this Sister Spirit Award.”
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