This piece was published in High Country News, November 28, 2011 (issue 43.20): The Burial of Elouise Cobell
Last Saturday, Elouise Cobell was buried on the Blackfeet Reservation on her and her husband’s Blacktail Ranch. There were Blackfeet and Catholic prayers and hymns sung by Hutterite girls and the ever present Montana wind. And it was possible that Napi – the “Old Man” supernatural trickster, troublemaker and ultimate helper of the Blackfeet – was in attendance, too.
Elouise Pepion Cobell was Yellowbird Woman, a Blackfeet Nation member. She was also a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. The lead plaintiff in the landmark Cobell v. Salazar and The Department of the Interior. A rancher and Blackfeet banker. And she passed on October 16th in a Great Falls, Montana hospice from a long bout with cancer.
The Blacktail Ranch is on the rolling prairie, near the southern border of the Blackfeet Reservation and within sight of the peaks of Glacier National Park. When Cobell drove the thirty miles north to Browning to work as Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, she passed Starvation Ridge, where during the winter of 1883-84 twenty percent of the Blackfeet Nation starved to death because of inept Indian Agents responsible for providing treaty rations.
And Cobell often drove the 100 miles to Great Falls to fly to D.C. for her work as the lead plaintiff in the largest class action lawsuit in history. That was to settle the mess of lost and destroyed records and lack of accounting of Indian Trust lands and payments by the Interior Department over the past 100 years. The case ran for 15 years and was all but settled for $3.4 billion – and the appropriation signed by President Obama – when she passed away.
Last Saturday, Hutterite girls in bright blue and purple taffeta dresses and scarves sheltered out of the wind on the west side of the small ranch house. They had arrived in a yellow school bus from the Birch Creek Colony, their home as members of a communal branch of Anabaptists. The Hutterites were neighbors and here to pay their respects, like the surrounding ranchers, Blackfeet from all over the reservation and VIPs from Washington, D.C.
The ranch house itself had a lost a few pieces of siding and much paint to the wind over the years. (In this part of Montana, wind blows freight trains off their tracks, and school bus trips are cancelled not because of snow but because the wind will blow the buses over.) Cobell’s MacArthur money went to the long running legal case, not their ranch house or their cattle operation.
The long funeral procession from the earlier service at the Browning High School gym was running behind, so people sat in their cars and waited out of the wind. The gym had been packed with thousands of people for the service, and fire trucks led the hearse slowly through town.
Here it was quieter. The funeral directors unloaded flowers next to a white tipi, poles squeaking in the wind, and lined up folding chairs that the wind blew down. The air was clear thirty miles to the west where the peaks of Glacier were shrouded in clouds that were dumping the first of the winter snows.
In the lee of the house, I talked with a banker who had made the 900 mile drive north from Denver. He had worked with Eloise to form the first Native American bank in Browning in 1987, ten years before the Interior lawsuit was filed.
A neighboring rancher offered me a slash from a pocket flask of whiskey. He joked that he could only sleep when the wind was whistling in his bedroom window. Other ranchers kept their backs mostly to the wind and talked about shipping their cattle to market and with the Hutterite men about fall harvest.
Someone’s cell phone rang. The hearse had gotten a flat tire at Badger Creek, a few miles up the road. People shook their heads. A rancher said, “with what they charge for this, they should have all new tires.”
The ranchers grew more disgusted when they saw a car stop on the highway and a TV news cameraman climb up a small hill and point his camera up the road.
Then two sheriff’s cars pulled in off the highway and past the Blackfeet Nation flag flapping above the mailbox. The casket arrived in the back of a pickup truck, secured with cargo straps. The driver pulled in close to the folding chairs and the casket was carried to the grave.
People laughed, saying Elouise must be laughing at the flat tire, too. And that she would be proud of this simple service and how she arrived at her ranch.
It was well known that Elouise loved Elvis Presley, and she would sing along to the radio on car rides. The earlier service in the gym had life size Elvis cutouts behind the priest and under a slideshow showing Cobell’s visit to Graceland. Sheet cakes from the grocery store were decorated with photos of Elvis and Elouise. The day before, a Browning radio station played Elvis music all day long in her honor.
There was a prayer in Blackfeet and a quiet Blackfeet warrior song sung by one drummer, most of the words snatched by the wind. A cluster of black Angus moaned in the pasture. A priest spoke and then turned to the two dozen Hutterite girls behind him. The girls sang two hymns, words split by gusts of wind: “Over yonder, there will be no parting, no crying…. Rejoicing to see our savior upon his throne…”
The priest sprinkled holy water on the casket. Flowers were lain atop the wood. And when it was time to lower the casket, the people who had been laughing about bringing the casket in the pickup now broke down. A long line formed to greet the family. The funeral directors worked the dirt. People began to drift to their cars.
I had been looking for a rancher I knew who grew up on the nearby Two Medicine River and who knew Elouise when they were both young. He told me later that he had stopped by the hearse with the flat on the hi-way and offered his respects. He had planned to stop at the ranch for the burial, he said, but could see that Napi, the trickster and the troublemaker had intervened.
Maybe Napi wanted to make a point? But what was it? Did he want to keep Elouise around for a bit longer?
I only knew Elouise from an interview the previous April in her office in Browning. I had gathered around an office PC with staffers and watched some sudden court proceedings streaming from D.C. And then waited as she made a conference call to her attorneys, discussing strategy and quietly laughing at the ineptness of the oppositions’ attempts to derail the $3.4 billion settlement.
She showed me a painting of Mountain Chief on her wall and told me that “maybe I was born with my great grandfather’s Mountain Chief’s genes, and wanted to fight for justice. And it never left my mind that you have to stand up for what’s right.”
Mountain Chief had long fought the whiskey traders and homesteaders’ incursions on the shrinking reservation in the late 19th century. But that had brought the US Army to the bottomlands of the Bear River on a thirty-below January morning in 1870 to massacre the Blackfeet and break the back of the Blackfeet nation. The Blackfeet retreated to a smaller reservation, and for many years were afraid to mention the massacre and defeat of the great tribe of the northern plains.
Now the Cobell settlement may be in jeopardy, with Cobell gone, the federal government facing budget cuts and new legal appeals that are challenging the long-sought deal.
A relative of Cobell’s died of cancer the same she passed. James Mad Dog Kennely had been waiting for the small amount of money the lawsuit settlement would bring. He made and sold beaded bracelets to supplement his Social Security checks. Because of the mess of the Indian Trust system, he got an $89 annual royalty check for $6,000 worth of oil pumped from his land.
In Cobell’s office that day I was there, taped to the back of her computer monitor was a small piece of paper. I remember glancing at it often during the half hour I sat and listened. It was placed there for me – and anyone else sitting in that chair – to read.
first they ignore you,
then they laugh at you,
then they fight you,
then you win.