Elouise Cobell was remembered on Saturday as a warrior whose compassion and grit drove her to dedicate the last 16 years of her life to holding the U.S. government accountable for billions lost or stolen from her fellow Native Americans.
Friends, family and American Indian leaders gathered in the Browning High School gymnasium on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation for a funeral Mass for Cobell, who died last Sunday of cancer. She was 65.
"She proved that with hard work and determination, the impossible is possible," Cobell's childhood friend, Zita Bremmer, told the crowd of more than 400.
Larry Echo Hawk, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, read a letter from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that said Cobell was "a significant force for change." Her work in bringing about a $3.4 billion settlement for hundreds of thousands of American Indians honorably resolves something that has weighed on the American conscience for more than a century, Echo Hawk said.
Under the settlement, the U.S. government would pay up to 500,000 Native Americans for mismanaging their accounts, buy up fractionated land and turn it over to the tribes and establish a college scholarship fund.
At the funeral service, two cardboard cutouts of Cobell's favorite singer, Elvis Presley, stood behind her open casket as a slideshow of her and her family played overhead on the gymnasium's scoreboard. Native American blankets and an American flag hung next to a crucifix as mourners, many dressed in boots and cowboy hats, approached the coffin to pay their respects.
Cobell was born on the reservation with the Indian name Yellow Bird Woman, the great-granddaughter of famous Indian leader Mountain Chief. She said she heard stories even as a child of how Native Americans were being cheated out of royalties owed them for the use of their land, which was held in trust by the Interior Department.
After receiving an education in business and accounting, Cobell and her husband Alvin returned to the reservation and took up her life's calling of helping her tribe and neighbors manage their finances. She was the tribe's treasurer for 13 years. She also helped set up one of the first Indian-owned banks in the U.S., the Native American Bank, and was executive director of the bank's nonprofit affiliate, the Native American Community Development Corp.
As she looked more closely into the stories of the mismanagement by the U.S. government, she discovered there was no accounting of how much was owed but that the lost and squandered money could amount to the hundreds of billions dating back to 1887.
Then in 1996, she and four other Native Americans filed the class-action lawsuit that in 2009 resulted in a $3.4 billion settlement with the U.S. government to pay up to 500,000 Native Americans for mismanaging their accounts, buy up fractionated land and turn it over to the tribes and establish a scholarship for college-bound youth.
She enlisted Washington D.C. attorney Dennis Gingold to represent her in the lawsuit. Gingold who told those gathered for her funeral that Cobell convinced him by telling him that some things in life are worth fighting for, whether or not they seem hopeless.
"Her sense of loyalty and duty was unmatched by anyone I have ever known," Gingold said.
Cobell spent those years raising money, lobbying members of Congress and traveling across the nation to meet with plaintiffs. She won a $300,000 "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1997 and used most of the money to help fund the lawsuit.
The settlement was approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama late last year, and U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan gave it final approval in June. But payments have been delayed until at least next year as the judge considers several appeals of the settlement by potential beneficiaries.
Just weeks before the judge's approval, Cobell discovered she had cancer. She died last Sunday at a hospital in Great Falls.
Bremmer recalled how when they were young, she and Cobell would dream of buying a pink Cadillac, a matching trailer and travel the nation.
"We never got the Cadillac, but Elouise got to travel the country," Bremmer said.
After the service at the high school, a burial was held at her family's ranch 26 miles south of Browning