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Truth and Consequences on the Reservation

Elouise Cobell Heard the Stories for Years: The U.S. Government Was Cheating Native Americans on Payments for Land Rights. She Took Up the Cause, and Now the Blackfoot Indian Tribe and Others Are Poised to Reap Billions.

July 07, 2002|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Blackfoot country, passing down stories from one generation to the next is an intricate part of tribal culture. The people who live here at the foot of the Montana Rockies pride themselves on the accuracy of this oral tradition. In the spring, when the geese have returned and the first rumble of thunder has rolled over the land, the Blackfeet begin a series of sacred ceremonies in which the stories they tell must never be embroidered, lest they be colored over time. Truth, they say, is the core of their history.

On the days when Elouise Cobell drives to the dilapidated Blackfoot reservation town of Browning, she passes a weathered historical marker that tells part of a story. The wooden sign marks the site of the U.S. government's first Indian office for the Blackfoot Nation. The marker also describes the devastating winter of 1884, when more than 500 Blackfeet died of starvation on the treeless, wind-swept plains where the government buildings once stood.

That account bears little resemblance to the Indian version of this grim tale, which has it that the U.S. Indian agent, John Young, hoarded food that would have saved the Blackfeet. The Indians who perished were buried in a mass grave atop what the Blackfeet reverently call Ghost Ridge. Cobell can see the ridge, too, each time she makes the 30-mile trip into Browning from her modest ranch south of town.

Cobell is a Blackfoot who for nearly three decades has overseen the financial fortunes of

her people, once a feared warrior tribe that roamed the plains before starvation, disease and

the slaughter of the buffalo reduced them to the humbling status of government wards. Now 56, this short, slightly plump woman has lived on the reservation most of her life.

In Browning, she spends much of her time schooling Native Americans in the basics of starting their own businesses. On the ranch, she shares chores with her husband, Alvin, including spreading hay for cattle in winter when the ground is blanketed with snow. Last spring, during a bitter cold snap, she saved two newborn calves from freezing by warming them in the shower. Then she took a blow dryer to them for good measure.

As she goes about this isolated existence just a few miles south of the Canadian border, Cobell also lives a second life--one arising from another story handed down by generations of Blackfeet that also is at odds with official versions of the truth. The tale is still being written, with Cobell emerging as the patient warrior whose labors over the last quarter century have brought the U.S. Interior Department to its knees. She has poised her tribe, along with countless other Native Americans, to reap billions of dollars in payments owed them by the government.

cobell's office is on the top floor of a tired two-story building painted a sickly shade of drab olive. Many other buildings in town are worse, including a number of boarded-up trailers on cluttered, overgrown lots. Sidewalks and paved roads are a recent addition to Browning. Unemployment hovers at around 70% in winter, when construction jobs dry up and the Blackfeet hunker down against the cold. In winter, dirty snow adds to the forlorn scene, and it is well into May before the wildflowers bloom and the plains turn green. On most days, a strong wind howls through town.

But its backdrop is the soaring, snow-capped Rockies at the gateway to Glacier National Park. It is here that Cobell first began sorting out the mystery of the missing money.

One of eight children in a home with no electricity, running water or telephone, she grew up listening to stories of Baker's Massacre, in which American soldiers slaughtered 200 Blackfeet, most of them women and children, after ambushing them on the banks of Montana's Marias River. She heard other tales about how Indian children were sent off to distant boarding schools for years at a time, where speaking their native Piegans was cause for punishment. And, too, she heard stories of government checks. She heard her parents wonder why those payments never made sense.

The talk of the checks in Cobell's house was similar to those in thousands of other homes on reservations throughout the American West. The checks arrived sporadically and they were for amounts no one understood. They knew the money was payment for land allotted to them but leased out by the government to timber, mineral or ranching interests, but they had no luck persuading the Interior Department or its Bureau of Indian Affairs to explain or account for the amounts. This haphazard way of doing business is called the Indian trust system. It is at the heart of the story.

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