Women’s History Month: Elouise Pepion Cobell

Elouise Pepion Cobell, also known as Yellow Bird Woman was a tribal elder and activist, banker, rancher, and lead plaintiff in the groundbreaking class-action suit Cobell v. Salazar (2009). This challenged the United States’ mismanagement of trust funds belonging to more than 500,000 individual Native Americans. She pursued the suit from 1996, challenging the government to account for fees from resource leases.

Elouise Pépion was born in 1945 on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, the middle of nine children of Polite and Catherine Pépion. She was a great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief, one of the legendary leaders of the Blackfeet Nation. She grew up on her parents’ cattle ranch on the reservation. Like many reservation families, they did not have electricity or running water. Pépion attended a one-room schoolhouse until high school. She graduated from Great Falls Business College and attended Montana State University. She had to leave before graduation to care for her mother, who was dying of cancer.

After her mother’s death, Elouise moved to Seattle, where she met and married Alvin Cobell, another Blackfeet living in Washington at the time. They had one son, Turk Cobell. After returning to the reservation to help her father with the family ranch, Elouise Cobell became treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation.

She founded the Blackfeet National Bank, the first national bank located on an Indian reservation and owned by a Native American tribe. After twenty other tribes joined the bank to form the Native American Bank, Cobell became Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, its non-profit affiliate. The Native American Bank is based in Denver, Colorado. In 1997, Cobell won a MacArthur genius award for her work on the bank and Native financial literacy. She donated part of that money to support her class-action suit against the federal government because of its mismanagement of trust funds and leasing fees, which she had filed in 1996.

In 2010, the government approved a $3.4 billion settlement for the trust case. Major portions of the settlement were to partially compensate individual account holders, and to buy back fractionated land interests, and restore land to reservations. It also provided for a $60 million scholarship fund for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, named the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund in her honor. The settlement is the largest ever in a class action against the federal government.

Buy-back of lands has continued, restoring acreage to the tribes. As of November 2016, $40 million had been contributed to the scholarship fund by the government, from its purchase of lands. It has paid $900 million to buy back the equivalent of 1.7 million acres in fractionated land interests, restoring the land base of reservations to tribal control.

Elouise died of cancer on October 11, 2016. In November 2016, Cobell’s work on behalf of Native Americans was honored by the award of a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama; her son Turk Cobell accepted the award on her behalf.

Her professional, civic experience and expertise included serving as Co-Chair of Native American Bank, NA.; a Board Member for First Interstate Bank; a Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian; as well as a member of other boards.

Throughout her life, Cobell also helped her husband to operate their ranch, raising cattle and crops. Cobell was active in local agriculture and environmental issues. She founded the first land trust in Indian Country and served as a Trustee for the Nature Conservancy of Montana.

Categories: Womens History

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