Elouise Pepion Cobell: Banker-Warrior

Elouise Cobel at her desk, looking at a document and talking on the telephone.

In 1996, banker Elouise Cobell became the lead plaintiff in a class action suit, demanding back payment and better accounting on Individual Indian Money Accounts managed by the BIA. Thirteen years later, the federal government settled for $3.4 billion, the largest settlement in U.S. history. 2005 Photo by Robin Loznak /Great Falls Tribune

Telling a young Blackfeet woman that she was “not capable” of understanding basic accounting may have been the most ridiculous thing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) ever did. The woman was Elouise Pepion Cobell, treasurer for the Blackfeet tribe and founder of the first American Indian-owned national bank. She became the lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Salazar, successfully suing the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the BIA on behalf of nearly half a million American Indians for mismanagement of trust funds.

Elouise Pepion Cobell grew up in the 1950s in a home without electricity or indoor plumbing. Across the Blackfeet reservation, many families lived in similar circumstances, despite the existence of income-producing enterprises such as oil and gas extraction and ranching on land belonging to tribal members. Cobell wondered how such profitable development on the Indians’ lands could fail to provide them with a significant income. Continue reading