Elouise Cobell, Moral Hero

Elouise Cobell is the lead plaintiff in the largest class action law suit ever filed against the U.S. government (filed in 1996). Representing over 500,000 Native Americans, Cobell reasonably argued that the U.S. government owed Native Americans hundreds of billions of dollars. In late 2010, Cobell settled for $3.4 billion to provide at least some recompense to the older Native Americans who were sadly dying every day without receiving any justice in this regard.

In 1887, the U.S. government tried to break up Native American Nations/Tribes by dividing tribal owned land into individual Indian accounts, and/or trust funds, for which the U.S. government supposedly served as trustee. While serving as treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation Indian Tribe (and building the Blackfeet National Bank, which turned into the Native American Bank and is a marvelous story in its own right), Cobell noticed how clearly the U.S. government continually failed to serve as minimally responsible trustees, in some cases stealing funds themselves, in other cases leasing Indian property to corporations and allowing the corporations to steal Indian funds, and in most all cases generally mismanaging the Indian accounts/trust funds in the most egregious ways. After much stonewalling and criminal defiance from Washington D.C., Cobell filed what became the largest class action ever against the U.S. government.

Here is a promotional video clip for the documentary “Cobell v.” (formerly titled, “Broken Promises”)

Here is a concise and slightly apposite press release from the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Here is the official website for the settlement

Below are four pieces covering this matter from Mother Jones:

Elouise Cobell’s Bittersweet Victory, 12/8/2009

Cobell, Native Leaders Reject Bush Proposal, Seek Resolution From Congress, 3/29/2007

Bush Administration Proposes Pennies On the Dollar In Settlement To Indians, 3/9/2007

Accounting Coup, 9,10/2005

Below are four pieces covering this matter from Democracy Now with Amy Goodman:

Federal Judge Rules US Government Owes Group of Native Americans $455 Million for Unpaid Royalties on Drilling for Oil and Gas, 8/12/2008

Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Economic Globalization: A Celebration of Victories, Rights and Cultures, 11/23/2006

Indian Leaders Offer to Settle Largest Class Action Lawsuit Against Federal Government in U.S. History, 6/24/2005

“The Indian Enron”? Hundreds of Boxes of Documents Destroyed, Charges of Contempt of Court, Billions of Dollars at Stake, Millions Paid to Arthur Anderson: Native Americans Sue the U.S. Government, 5/29/2002

Elouise Cobell is currently the Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation.

She is now recovering from cancer treatment. Let us all please wish her well.

[A version of the above is cross-posted at https://sites.google.com/site/davidslutsky/home/moral-heroes]

6 thoughts on “Elouise Cobell, Moral Hero

  1. Does anyone share my moral outrage/profound sadness about the settlement? Most news stories report/reported the settlement as a good thing, as a great accomplishment. The settlement was a pragmatic compromise – even the most courageous and persistent champions of conscience and justice have a hard time fighting arguably the most powerful entity on the planet – the U.S. government – especially when more time fighting means more victims passing away in old age and poverty without receiving any recognition or recompense for the crimes against them.

    Can you imagine living in poverty while the affluence of others grows from the oil and minerals extracted from your property, the livestock and agriculture on your property, the profit from which should go to you but rather enriches the wealthy instead, all under the management of the U.S. government?

    Elouise Cobell is a true moral hero many times over in many ways. There is no criticism of her here, but rather a criticism of the (arguably unjust) compromise of a kind that an unjust government and legal system so often forces on its victims.

  2. Thanks for bringing attention to this social justice issue as well as the moral and ethical courage of Elouise Cobell. Although I agree that the settlement is morally objectionable in many ways, I think it is also important to understand the reasons for settling, as explained in the links that David Slutsky helpfully provides in the post above. For instance, the settlement will bring reforms to the management of Indian Trust Accounts. But please, no one sell their land to the government as part of the reform process. If the reforms work, American Indian account holders can begin actually to receive the profits from their land, besides the measly $1500 or so paid by the settlement. This why one of the reasons that the Native American Community Development Corporation (and Cobell’s work for it) is so important – to help American Indians become more independent from the U.S. government.

    Here are some additional links on Melinda Janko’s (hopefully forthcoming) documentary “Cobell v.”


    Cobell v. website

    You Tube trailer for Cobell v.

  3. Women served many crucial roles, unfortunately often unsung for many, in the American Indian Movement (AIM), especially during the 1970’s (the time period I have recently studied).

    For just one example, Nilak Butler and Tina Manning Trudell served very important roles toward mitigating the FBI COINTELPRO and other government propaganda against AIM (generally), and also against Robert Robideau and Darrell Butler (particularly) for the murders of two FBI agents, Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. (Unfortunately, the FBI took much greater steps to convict, and arguably frame, Leonard Peltier for the same murders in 1977.) Interested readers might wish to check out Michael Apted’s 1992 documentary titled, “Incident at Oglala” and parts of Heather Rae’s 1995 documentary about John Trudell titled, “Trudell”).

    This is all really great and important stuff. Interested readers might want to read up on Nilak Butler (and Tina Manning Trudell). Informed readers with (more and better) recommendations, please share them!

    As regards management of trust accounts, interested readers might want to check out the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians of the U.S. Department of the Interior:

    – David Slutsky

  4. For criticism of the Cobell settlement, interested readers can look into following concerns expressed by Angelique EagleWoman and Kimberly Craven, for instance.

    For a start, see:

    Nonetheless, there is still:
    Concern for Cobell rooted in genuine admiration

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