Senators want to honor Cobell with congressional medal

Billings Gazette

HELENA — Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus introduced legislation Tuesday to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Elouise Cobell, the Browning woman who successfully sued the federal government over mismanagement of American Indian trust funds.

If approved by Congress, the legislation by the two Montana Democrats would authorize President Barack Obama to award the medal to Cobell “in recognition of her outstanding and enduring contributions to American Indians, Alaska Natives and the nation through her tireless pursuit of justice.”

This medal is considered the most distinguished form of recognition bestowed by Congress. The first recipient was George Washington, who was honored in 1776 by the Continental Congress. Over the years, Congress has given the medal to a wide range of Americans, including explorers, scientists and humanitarians.

Cobell, 65, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, filed a lawsuit in 1996 alleging that federal government had mismanaged trust funds belonging to more than 500,000 American Indians. In December, Congress agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement, the largest with the government in U.S. history.

“Hundreds of thousands of American Indians will benefit due to Elouise’s dedication to justice, fairness and the trust responsibility of the U.S. government,” said Tester, a longtime friend of Cobell’s and a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Elouise refused to take no for an answer and her tireless pursuit represents the standard by which we should award historic honors like the Congressional Gold Medal.”

Tester said Cobell’s hard work on behalf of not only Montana’s tribes, but American Indians everywhere deserves thanks and the highest recognition available.

“Generations to come will benefit because Elouise stood up and demanded a better future for American Indians,” he said.

In response, Cobell said, “Just to be nominated for this medal is a tremendous honor. I am indebted to both my senators for their action.”

As treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe in the 1980s, Cobell discovered many irregularities in the handling of funds held in trust by the United States on behalf of the Blackfeet and individual Indians. After a decade of failing to convince officials in Washington, D.C., to make changes, Cobell filed her lawsuit.

Cobell, a strong advocate for youth education for Indians, is creating a scholarship to help young Montanans gain access to higher education.

She previously received a “genius grant” in 1997 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellows program and used a portion of the money to fund her lawsuit.