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Blackfeet Elder Cobell Honored

Posted by on in SageWoman Blogs

b2ap3_thumbnail_cobell1.jpgOn November 22, 2016, President Obama posthumously awarded Eloise P. Cobell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian. Cobell (1945--2011) was a Blackfeet Tribal Elder, a highly-accomplished woman championing the rights of her people, and the person who filed the largest class action lawsuit against the United States government in American history--and won!

In the 1980s, Cobell saw a systemic pattern of corruption in how the U.S. government was treating the Blackfeet and other Indigenous nations within their confederacy, and she took on the responsibility to do something about it. After taking a deep-dive into the historic accounting practices between the U.S. and the Blackfeet that entailed pouring over centuries-old treaties, she not only determined the mishandling of funds, but the staggering figure the government owed the Blackfeet.

In 2009, the Cobell Settlement Agreement came through, and "Cobell" checks, as they were called, were distributed to the Blackfeet people. Her lawsuit led to $3.4 Billion in compensation for the mishandling of Indigenous lands. In addition to this sum of money, President Obama signed into law the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 that not only provides scholarships for Indigenous peoples seeking higher education, but provides for individual Native people to have greater control over their lands. This is Cobell's lasting achievement. b2ap3_thumbnail_bilde.jpg

Cobell's first step to address the problems she discovered as the Blackfeet nation's treasurer for 13 years was to seek a meeting with a sitting U.S. President. After repeated failed attempts to have the theft of lands and resources of her people heard, she realized she had but one choice: sue the U.S. government. Cobell told a reporter that after she filed the class action lawsuit, she stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of her actions: "Oh my god, I am suing the U.S. government! What are they going to do to me?!" In the end, though, the class action attorneys proved that the U.S. deliberately stole land and resources from the Blackfeet nation over a period of a century, and was ordered to compensate them for the theft.

b2ap3_thumbnail_elouisecobellbarackobama.jpgCobell was the great-granddaughter of the last hereditary leader of the Blackfeet, Mountain Chief, and grew up in Browning, Montana. She was one of nine children and attended a one-room school. She attended Great Falls Business College after graduating high school, but her audacious success stemmed from her devotion to her community and her inner drive, not from formal education.

b2ap3_thumbnail_CuHLjbMWEAEBcTr.jpgIn 1987 she helped launch the Blackfeet National Bank; she was also instrumental in her community's viability and sustainability programs, like Blackfeet Recycling Center. In 1997 she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Grant (a.k.a. the "genius grant") of $300,000.00, which she used towards the class action lawsuit for her people.

The battle to win the lawsuit took 16 years, very difficult, exhausting years for Eloise Cobell. In 2011, only a few years after the settlement, Ms. Cobell died of cancer. She was memorialized and deeply lauded by state and national leaders and activists around the U.S., including President Obama who noted that she "strengthened the government to government relationship in Indian Country."

b2ap3_thumbnail_screen_shot_2016-10-11_at_12.49.56_pm.jpgOn November 22 of this year, Cobell's son, Turk, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in her honor at the White House in a deeply poignant ceremony that acknowledged Cobell's commitment to social justice--to doing what is right for her people--as her first and foremost goal. Eloise Cobell's life is an inspiration to us all and an urgent reminder in our current times that the dedication of one person can make the greatest difference. We don't need to imagine such an outcome; we have this, and so many other examples, right before us as evidence that we CAN make a difference for good in the face of great adversity.

In this upcoming year when we are facing alarming political changes, we will need the example of a Grandmother like Eloise Cobell more than ever! For me, I will never look at the Lincoln Memorial without seeing that Blackfeet Grandmother standing there in wonder saying to herself, "My God, I am suing the U.S. government!"--and knowing that SHE WON!

b2ap3_thumbnail_DSC_5275.jpgThank you, Eloise Cobell, for what you have left all of us!

May your legacy continue without end inspiring all of humanity to never give up working for the perpetuation of freedom, goodness, and dignity for every living being in this sacred world, no matter how great the odds.

Happy New Year, Everyone!


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Dr. Mays is a professional writer with a doctoral degree in Native American Studies who has taught at the college level for nearly two decades. She is committed to educating about Indigenous cultures, especially about practices that specifically relate to women, in order to raise awareness about current issues in Indian Country, dissolve stereotypes, and create healing among all communities.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Monday, 02 January 2017

    Thank you for this - it is amazing to see these past 500 years of history on the North American continent begin to turn as "the moral arc of the universe" continues to slowly spiral toward justice

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