Elouise Cobell’s legacy: self-empowerment

Keith-HarperKeith Harper is one of the lead attorneys on the landmark Indian trust funds lawsuit brought by Blackfeet leader Elouise Cobell, which led to a 3.4 billion dollar settlement. Harper, a member of the Cherokee nation, worked with Cobell over the 16 years of the lawsuit, and he continues to represent the plaintiffs as the settlement is distributed. Cobell died in 2011, after the settlement was reached but before the money was disbursed. In this feature interview, Harper talks with News Director Sally Mauk about Cobell’s long fight – and what the outcome means for Indian country. Harper says he was just two years out of law school in 1995 when he started working on the case.

First payments in Cobell Settlement soon heading to Native Americans

Marciana Garay is one of thousands of Montanans receiving Cobell settlement checks from the Federal Government

Marciana Garay is one of thousands of Montanans receiving Cobell settlement checks from the Federal Government

The federal government is sending out the first round of payments to half a million Native Americans following a record $3.4 billion class-action suit over the government’s mismanagement of Indian trust funds.

Montana Blackfeet woman Elouise Cobell spearheaded the lawsuit for 15 years. She died of cancer in October 2011, after the settlement was reached but before the end of the appeals process.

Some tribal members receiving the $1000 checks have mixed feelings about the settlement.

In a brick building near Helena’s downtown on Wednesday, the nonprofit Helena Indian Alliance was preparing for their annual Christmas Party

“We have a big feast,” said Marciana Garay, an elderly Blackfeet woman in a white sweater with a decorative blue handkerchief tied around her neck. “Everybody brings a side dish and then we have a Santa clause for the children and we give out little gifts to them.”

Garay is one of thousands of Montanans who will be receiving a check from the landmark Cobell settlement with the federal government. Elouise Cobell was Garay’s distant cousin. She remembers speaking with Cobell many years ago on the Blackfeet reservation.

“And we would discuss all the thefts goin on with various companies coming in and taking oil,” Garay said.

Cobell worked as treasurer of the Blackfeet tribe for years. She discovered inconsistencies in how Indian trust lands and other funds were being managed by the federal government. Royalties from things like oil or lumber production on those lands were supposed to be going back to the Indian land owners. Cobell filed a lawsuit against the government in the mid-1990s. She lived to see the settlement reached in 2009.

The Federal government finalized the settlement late in November of 2012 and says checks should start going out this week. Jeremy Red Eagle runs youth programs at the Helena Indian Alliance.

“It’s definitely a victory to a certain degree,” he said. “The fact that we’re in a day and age where we can sue the United States government and whether we were able to get what we wanted was a different story.”

The $3.4 billion settlement is split in a couple ways. The thousand dollar checks being sent out first acknowledge the government violating its contract with Indian nations. Other funds from the suit will be distributed later, and a $60 million college scholarship fund is being set up for Native youth.

Red Eagle was told he’ll be getting about $1800 from the suit. He thinks the settlement helps, but it should have been much larger.

“Well, for one I know in most native communities most of our people live below the poverty level, so I think in that sense it’s gonna help a lot of people out especially if they do show up when they say they’re gonna. But my thought’s in general about the whole situation is it’s kind of a slap in the face because we are getting pennies on the dollar about what the original lawsuit was about,” he said.

Red Eagle says he’s spending his money to fly to Minnesota to take part in a memorial ride and a memorial run for ancestors killed in a genocide in the 1860s.

“It’s kind of ironic that’s what we would spend our money on doing,” he said.

Marciana Garay though is staying local with her check.

“What would you be using yours for?” I asked her.

“Bills,” she laughed, “and a good Christmas for my kids and my grandkids.”

And she believes every tribe that benefitted from this lawsuit should somehow honor the memory of Elouise Cobell.