For 15 years, Elouise Cobell proved herself a warrior in the fashion of her great-grandfather, legendary Blackfeet leader Mountain Chief. People in Montana watched her legal battle against the federal government unfold slowly, even ploddingly, over a span that encompassed three presidential administrations. Cobell never gave up her tenacious pursuit of justice for Native Americans whose trust accounts had been grotesquely mismanaged for more than a century. Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who served as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said it best: "If you're ever going to take on an adversary in life, I would not suggest you pick Elouise."
What Montanans may not have heard during those years were the stories of the poverty-stricken and disenfranchised tribal members across the country for whom Cobell so tirelessly fought. And while Melinda Janko's 2016 documentary, 100 Years, spends much of its time with Cobell, the moments that stand out most are those spent with other characters: Dorothy Wilson, James "Mad Dog" Kennerly, Harry Johnson and his mother, Mary. They live hardscrabble lives on reservations, getting by on the meagerest of government checks for use of their allotted lands—if the checks come at all. Cobell's fear throughout her class-action lawsuit was that justice would not come in time for the eldest of those plaintiffs.
Taken as a documentary of the landmark Cobell case, 100 Years feels chronologically fragmented at times, and leaves unaddressed the equally maddening struggle for congressional approval of the $3.4 billion settlement. But there are enough revelations here to forgive the lack of signposts, particularly regarding the deplorable manner in which trustee records were stored at various Bureau of Indian Affairs offices around the U.S. The toll that plaintiff deaths took on Cobell as events played out is equally stirring, as the fierce warrior is forced to grapple with the halting pace of bureaucracy.
Many plaintiffs did not live long enough to see the first settlement payments. Cobell was among them. The greatest story left untold in 100 Years is Cobell's simultaneous battle with cancer, which claimed her life on Oct. 16, 2011. It's a story Cobell largely kept to herself, instead willing the focus onto those for whom she sought justice. In that sense, Janko's film is a fitting tribute—not a rehash of a 15-year lawsuit, but a light shed on the hardships that lawsuit was meant to correct.
Screens at the Wilma Sun., Feb. 19, at 2:45 PM and Wed., Feb. 22, at 8:45 PM.