It was a subzero January day on the Hi-Line in 2010 when I met Elouise Cobell. She'd won a landmark $3.4 billion settlement from the federal government weeks before, a victory 14 years in the making. She'd been called names, fielded threats and traveled to Washington, D.C. so many times she said the Great Falls airport started feeling like home. She'd weathered it all on behalf of hundreds of Native American plaintiffs nationwide. Her reputation preceded her.
Cobell's office at the Native American Community Development Corp. overlooked a lonely, snow-streaked Browning side street, a stone's throw from the tribally owned bank she'd once chaired. Family pictures, paintings and Elvis Presley memorabilia crowded the walls and shelves. She greeted me, and I could tell the descriptions I'd heard of her—tenacious, feisty, unflappable, poised—were accurate.
She said she'd been naïve, "such a Pollyanna," when she first decided to sue the U.S. Department of the Interior for 100 years of mismanaging Individual Indian Money accounts. She thought one word to the president would fix things. The years toughened her, and she stuck to it because, she said, "I knew I was right."
Cobell, who died of cancer on Oct. 16, spoke clearly, with a pace that allowed for cleaner note taking than a journalist is used to. Whether commenting on her status as a folk heroine or lamenting the government's divide-and-conquer tactics in Indian Country, she always managed to chuckle.
The road to victory wasn't easy. For example, she said, in 2004, she'd donated a kidney to her husband, Alvin. He'd been on dialysis. The lawsuit was going "full-blast." She had to return to D.C. shortly after the transplant. But Alvin recovered.
After the interview, Cobell agreed to a photo shoot around town. The temperature was in the negative double-digits. My car wasn't much warmer. Yet she sat pleasantly in the backseat, ducking outside with photographer Cathrine Walters at different Browning landmarks. "Bless her for no complaints while traipsing out...to fulfill a vision I had for a cover," Walters says.
As we parted ways outside her office, Cobell gave me a motherly hug. Then she hugged Walters. She told us to travel safely and promised we'd talk again soon. Years of fighting on so many fronts, and that warrior never lost her grace.