Elouise Cobell, a lead plaintiff in a landmark class action in Washington who had long advocated for Indian trust reform, died late Sunday in Great Falls, Montana. A member of the Blackfeet Tribe, Cobell was 65. She died of complications from cancer.
Cobell was the name plaintiff in a suit filed in 1996 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that demanded the government perform an accounting of billions of dollars—flowing from oil and gas leases, among other sources—held in trust in individual Indian money accounts.
The plaintiffs, led by a Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton team and Washington solo Dennis Gingold, reached a $3.4 billion settlement in December 2009. Some 500,000 Native Americans stand to receive compensation through the deal.
President Barack Obama and top U.S. Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., heralded the settlement. Obama said the deal marked “an important step towards a sincere reconciliation between the trust beneficiaries and the federal government.”
Obama said in a statement today that "Cobell helped to strengthen the government to government relationship with Indian Country, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family, and all those who mourn her passing."
Senior Judge Thomas Hogan of Washington federal district approved the settlement this summer, but the deal is now pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
“We wanted to get the case over as soon as possible so that people can enjoy the fruits of their success,” Gingold said today. “We didn’t do that. That’s a shame for a lot of people. Not just Elouise.”
Gingold said he and several lawyers, including Kilpatrick partner Keith Harper, last met with Cobell on Oct. 13. Gingold described Cobell as cogent as she asked questions about the case.
Gingold described Cobell’s death as a tragedy. “The effort she has put in and the accomplishment—I don’t know anyone who has done as much as Elouise,” he said. “She did it based on right and wrong and persistence.”
Cobell regularly attended major hearings in the case as it worked its way through Washington’s federal trial court. For health reasons, Cobell did not attend court in person in June when Hogan issued final approval for the settlement. She addressed Indian trust reform with the court through a telephone connection.
"Much more work, much more effort will be required," Cobell said. "But the plaintiffs in the settlement agreement insisted on expressly and specifically saying that trust reform was not complete. As a result of this case, as a result of our discussions, and as a result of us now reaching a settlement agreement, Secretary Salazar has issued a secretarial order calling for the creation of a commission to address further trust reform upon the final approval of this settlement."
On Capitol Hill, Cobell was a leading voice for the settlement, urging members of Congress to approve the deal. (The settlement required congressional authorization.)
In testimony last year in the House of Representatives, Cobell said the settlement is “far less than the full amount to which individual Indians are entitled.”
“Yes, we could prolong our struggle, fight longer, and, perhaps one day, reach a judgment in the courts that results in a greater benefit to individual Indians,” Cobell said. “But we are nevertheless compelled to settle now by the sobering reality that members of our class die each year, each month, and every day, forever prevented from receiving that which is theirs."
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is the co-sponsor of legislation that would honor Cobell with the Congressional Gold Medal for her work for Native Americans.
“I’m saddened to hear of the passing of Elouise Cobell, a true champion for justice who improved the lives of American Indians across the country, including thousands in Nevada," Reid said in a statement today. "Elouise was an extraordinary American who made countless contributions to our country, which is why I believe she deserves the highest honor Congress can bestow upon a civilian. Indian Country–and the entire country–has lost an inspiring leader.”
Cobell is survived by, among others, her husband, Alvin Cobell, a son, Turk Cobell, and two grandchildren.
Photos by National Law Journal photographer Diego M. Radzinschi