100 years: a film remembering Elouise Cobell

The Museum of the Rockies continued the week-long celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day by filling the Hager Auditorium with students, faculty and community members to watch a film dedicated to illuminating the struggle of Elouise Cobell, who died in 2011. Cobell dedicated her life to create justice for the people of her reservation. The Bear Canyon singers introduced the film, screened on Thursday, Oct. 12, with two songs. After the performance, there were short speeches by Walter Fleming, the department head of Native American Studies at MSU, Kristin Ruppel, an associate professor of Native American Studies and Jim Scott, friend of Cobell and vice chairman of First Interstate Bank’s board of directors.


After the speeches, the movie “100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice” was shown. The film detailed the 14-year struggle of Cobell, otherwise known as Yellow Bird Woman, to force the U.S. Government to accurately document Native American land trusts. Cobell also called upon the government to pay reparations to the Native Americans who called the land trusts home. After the discovery of mineral rich lands on Native American reservations, the U.S. Government began leasing them to drilling and mining companies. These drilling and mining operations took place on reservation land, so the government was able to put aside “trusts” for the people whose land they were leasing. The trust arrangement allowed the government to only release a fraction of the total revenue from the land and to keep the rest as profit.


Due to the government’s land trusts, many Native Americans received literal cents from land that should have been worth thousands. Elouise fought to have transparency within the land trust system and to have payments made to the inhabitants of the reservations equaling the amounts previously denied. Elouise began her lawsuit, known as Cobell v. Salazar, with an estimated settlement price of approximately $27 billion. The government delayed and obstructed the process of the trial with numerous methods including, but not limited to, the destruction of evidence, and the removal of a presiding judge who began to rule in favor of Cobell. During the Obama administration the lawsuit was finally settled at $3.4 billion in 2009.


The presentation was ended by a panel of Blackfoot Nation members who were close to Cobell. Participants included Loren Birdrattler, project manager of the Blackfeet Agricultural Resource Management Plan; Terry Tatsey, vice chairman of the Blackfeet Nation; Helen Augare-Carlson, Native Science Field Center director at Blackfeet Community College and Mark Magee, Land Department director and board chairman for the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust. The members of the panel responded to audience questions and told stories about Cobell and her family.  Stories of Cobell, who is now deceased, served to give the audience a better view of who Yellow Bird Woman really was. The panel continued to answer questions and tell stories for about an hour before the evening drew to a close.


During his introduction to the film 100 years, Walter Fleming discusses the Native American Studies department at Montana State University prior to the film’s screening in the Hager Auditorium at the Museum of the Rockies, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Samuel Klusmeyer.