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Plaintiff In Indian Case On Settlement


Over the years, this case has carried different names with one common element: Cobell versus Salazar, Cobell versus Norton, Cobell versus Kempthorne, Cobell versus Babbitt. Elouise Cobell joins us now on the program. Thank so much for being with us.

Ms. ELOUISE COBELL (Plaintiff, Cobell v. Salazar): I'm very happy to be here.

NORRIS: And, of course, the names that we have mentioned all secretaries of the Interior and that suggests just how long you've been involved in this battle. We heard briefly, in Ari Shapiro's story, you being the lead plaintiff in the suit that this has been a longtime coming - 13 years. What does today's settlement mean to you?

Ms. COBELL: I think that you almost want to say, like Forrest Gump has said, well, I think I'll go home now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COBELL: Like it's been a long drawn out battle and, you know, it's taken its toll on many people. And I think about when I filed this lawsuit I thought, you know, two years at the most and I would be ready to go home. And of course I was very young then. I was 50 years old when I filed this case and I'm 64 years old today. So you can imagine how long it has taken. So, it means an awful lot to me but even more what it means for all the individual Indian people. They wanted justice and I think today was a first step in the way of justice. Did we get all the money that was due us? Probably no, but I am happy about it.

NORRIS: What did you hear from the elders when you heard of the settlement? What was the first phone call you made?

Ms. COBELL: Every single day that I would go out to elders, you know, they constantly asked me about when will we get money from this case. I would like to buy my grandchildren some clothes. I would like to, you know, get some medical help. It was never about, you know, that I'm going to run out and I'm going to buy a car. It was like for the basics of life.

NORRIS: This case has been about compensation. It's been about apology. It's been about land to some degree. But it's also been about history. And the records that you have kept and the story of those records told did not comport with the records that the federal government or the department of the Interior kept. How important is that aspect of this story, as to your mind, correcting the record or agreeing on what the record should be?

Ms. COBELL: You know, this case is a result of the Dawes Act that basically set the individual Indian trust up. And the government, you know, said, you Indians are all stupid and incompetent and you can't manage your trust assets, so the government will come forward and be the trustee and manage these assets to the highest fiduciary standards. Well, you know, what happened was horrible. There was never an accounting from 1887 forward for individual Indian account holders. There was stealing. There was corruption. And what I think was particularly very smart of Judge Royce Lamberth when we started this case is that he put a protective order on the documents but the documents could not be destroyed. They had to be protected�

NORRIS: Because many of them were destroyed.

Ms. COBELL: And many of the documents were destroyed. In fact, you know, Secretary Babbitt and Secretary Rubin were held in contempt to court - first time in history, because they continued to destroy documents while we were in court. Maybe this case has brought forward that this behavior will not be tolerated anymore because, I'll tell you what, we'll be monitoring and we will be monitoring our trustee going forward.

NORRIS: You are sitting here in the studio right now and you're wearing a -pardon me for saying this - but you're wearing sharp suit. You are dressed with some beautiful jewelry, but back home the Blackfeet Indian tribe considers you to be a warrior. Is that how you see yourself?

Ms. COBELL: Well I think it's - I felt in this case - and the reason that I'm here today is because the elders constantly came to me and asked me could you help me, could you help me, could you write letters for me, could you do this, could you do that. And I did and with no results and no success. And so I just had to fight on. And I think maybe it's in my genes. My great, great grandfather was mountain chief. He was the last hereditary chief and he would not give in when the governments would tell him, oh, you're going to live your lifestyle like this. And he did not. He fought for his people and I think that's very important that we do all contribute to help individual Indian people that really need other peoples to assist them.

NORRIS: Elouise Cobell, thank so much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. COBELL: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

NORRIS: Elouise Cobell is the lead plaintiff in the suit settled with the federal government today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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