Elouise Cobell died of cancer at the beginning of October, in Great Falls, Montana. While not a name most know, Cobell is a household name across Indian Country; she was the lead plaintiff on a 15-year legal battle with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the agency that manages Federal Indian land — and the Indian Trust. Cobell’s lawsuit was about whether or not the government had properly accounted for trust funds over the hundred-plus years that they had been managing the trust. (Full disclosure — I worked on Indian Trust issues at the Department of the Interior for two years.)
In newspapers and websites across the country, tributes to Cobell’s life have exalted her as a warrior in her battle against the government. Montana Sen. Jon Tester and seven other senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, are co-sponsoring legislation to award her the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can give a civilian.
But no one is saying what her real, life-changing contributions were. Despite the protracted lawsuit, which was fraught as it involved a complicated history of victimization, and victimhood (as I wrote here: "Triumph and Tragedy in Indian Country"), what Elouise Cobell should be truly proud of is that she got Congress to pay attention to a long legacy of unfunded mandates. She got them to appropriate money to vastly improve the system by which the government managed and accounted for the dollars that come into and out of the Indian Trust. Her lawsuit got Congress to fund the building of a world-class records repository outside Kansas City, and to fund a nationwide call center where Indian Trust account holders could get real-time information on their accounts. It also put Indian Trust account managers (the vast majority of whom were Indians themselves) in Bureau of Indian Affairs offices across the country to work directly with Indian Trust account holders.
In fact, her lawsuit put a lot of Indians to work. (The Department of the Interior is likely the largest employer in Indian Country, as about 90 percent of employees at the BIA are Indians.)
It wasn’t the resolution of the lawsuit — as muddled as that is. It was the work done because of the attention of the lawsuit.
For all of this, Elouise Cobell’s heirs should be proud.