September 14, 2005
Indian woman leads multibillion fight against U.S
By Adam Tanner
BROWNING, Montana (Reuters) - When Elouise Cobell became
treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe in 1976, she began to
investigate U.S. government payments to Native Americans for
the rights to mine, farm and graze on Indian land.
Three decades later the banker is in her ninth year of a
$27.5 billion lawsuit against the U.S. government, alleging
that officials have cheated Indians for more than a century.
The complex dispute dates back to 1887, when the United
States allotted lands to Indians but held them in trust for
them. Under the arrangement, the government collects fees from
ranchers, timber and oil companies or others using the land and
distributes the money back tax free to individual Indians.
"This is our money; they collected the money from 1887
forward. We know they used the money for other purposes," said
Cobell, 59, who is the executive director of the Native
American Community Development Bank in Browning, Montana.
Cobell says the class-action lawsuit, being heard in U.S.
District Court in Washington, would benefit 500,000 Indians and
originally sought $170 billion. This summer, Cobell
announced she would settle for $27.5 billion.
"They owe that money. They owe a hell of a lot more than
$27 billion. It's a pretty good gosh darn bargain for this
country," she said. "They are certainly finding the billions of
dollars to fight the war in Iraq."
WELLS PUMPING, CATTLE GRAZING
To demonstrate the confusion around the issue, she drove a
visitor to several small oil wells, as well as along farm and
grazing land across the Blackfeet Nation near the Canadian
border. Typically the Indian owners of that land know little of
the deals the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) have arranged
there, she said.
Cobell pulled out a photocopy of a May check for $69.35 she
received from the Office of the Special Trustee for American
Indians. The stub offers no explanation. Cobell said she did
not know whether the amount is for oil or other rights on her
"This is an outrage," said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
"If you had a private company that managed a trust like the BIA
managed the trust for these Indian families, you'd put them in
jail -- for a long time."
Ross Swimmer, special trustee for American Indians at the
U.S. Department of the Interior, says Indians have suffered
past injustices but said his agency does an honest job of
administering about 300,000 trusts.
"I guess that's my response to Elouise: That it's not black
and white," said Swimmer, who administers the trusts from
"In many instances fraud was committed upon the Indians,"
he said. But "no, they were not systematically cheated."
"In the transactions we have looked at and different cases
we have investigated -- including those that have been raised
by the plaintiffs in terms of mismanagement -- we haven't found
that there is any systematic rip-off, if you will, of the
Complicating the accounting, he said, is the dilution of
land ownership over the years to many relatives through
inheritance. Court documents show that the bureau has 14,289
accounts where Indians are due between one cent and $1 for use
of land in which they have often a tiny stake.
Cobell, a granddaughter of the last Blackfoot hereditary
leader Mountain Chief, has already won may legal battles in the
suit and is confident that she will ultimately prevail.
"We're not going to roll over and play dead any more," said
Cobell, who has become a celebrity in Indian country and raised
$11 million for the court fight. "I made the decision a long
time ago when I was a lot younger than 59 years old to fight it
for the long haul."
"I really thought the litigation would not take as long as
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on
Indian Affairs, has sought a comprehensive settlement to be
approved by Congress to avoid decades of litigation.
"They are going to cause us as much misery as they can to
try to get us and Congress to give them a pot of money," said
Swimmer, a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of
Cobell says a settlement could include a time-payment plan
or the allocation of assets rather than cash. "We would be
willing to consider other avenues such as a longer period of
time to pay it," she said. "If you don't have the cash, let's
talk about some of this land we can take back."
McCain and others expect numbers far below $27 billion, but
say some agreement will one day settle the Cobell case.
"Ultimately there will be a deal," Montana Gov. Schweitzer
said. "She has won, she will continue to win until Interior
starts paying and ponying up and correcting the wrongs that
they have done with their trust management over the years."