[JURIST] Elouise Cobell, who successfully led plaintiffs in the Indian trust class action lawsuit [class action website] against the US Department of the Interior (DOI) [official website], died from cancer Sunday at age 65. The resulting $3.4 billion settlement [agreement, PDF] for mismanaged Indian land royalties was the largest settlement in US government history. Cobell, who was an accountant and a member of the Blackfeet tribe [official website], grew up on a Montana reservation [WP article] without amenities such as electricity, telephone or running water. From a young age, she was told stories about the US government shortchanging Native Americans on land development leases for oil, gas and farming, rendering her tribe largely impoverished and under-employed. As the treasurer for the Montana tribe, Cobell finally decided to bring the lawsuit in 1996 as a result of the government’s slow-moving disbursements for the acreage they developed. In a statement [text] regarding her passing, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said:
I am deeply saddened by the loss of Elouise Cobell, who dedicated her life to the betterment of Indian people. She sought justice to address historical wrongs that had weighed on our nation’s conscience and was a significant force for change. … As we pause to reflect on Elouise’s life and achievements, let us be inspired to do better by the first Americans, and to uphold our nation’s promise of justice and opportunity for all.
Cobell spent 15 years advancing the lawsuit and was diagnosed with cancer weeks before the settlement was approved.
Judge Thomas Hogan of the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] approved the $3.4 billion settlement [JURIST report] in June. At that time, President Barack Obama [official website] expressed hope [statement] that the settlement would improve the relationship between the US government and American Indians and promised to “engage in government-to-government consultations” with the tribes over the land consolidation part of the settlement. The settlement was ratified by both Houses of Congress and approved by the president before being given final approval by the district court in August. The settlement was agreed upon [JURIST report] in December 2009. The plaintiffs had rejected [JURIST report] a $7 billion settlement offer in 2007.