Lead plaintiff in Indian trust case battles cancer

By Matt Volz
Helena, Montana (AP) May 2011

A Blackfeet woman who has led a 15-year legal battle to reclaim Native American land royalties that were mismanaged by the federal government said she is recuperating after having surgery for cancer.

Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., said she underwent surgery April 22 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“It was a serious cancer and it was discovered quickly, and fortunately the Mayo Clinic did a good job,” she told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “The doctor said it (the surgery) was 99 percent successful.”

She is recovering at her son’s house in Las Vegas and said she is planning to return to Montana after she gets back her strength, possibly next week. She said she will have to undergo chemotherapy.

Cobell, 65, declined to give specifics about her illness but said she found out about it only recently. “I wasn’t trying to keep it quiet,” she said. “I understood something was wrong and I went in to find out.”

She added she appreciates all the support she has received from family and friends.

Cobell was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government claiming the Interior Department lost, stole or misspent billions of dollars in royalties belonging to hundreds of thousands of Indian account holders.

Congress has approved a $3.4 billion settlement in the case, and a federal judge granted preliminary approval of the deal in December. A final court hearing is set for June 20.

Cobell is the executive director of the nonprofit Native American Community Development Corp., which promotes sustainable economic development in Indian Country. She won a $300,000 genius grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1997 and used most of the money to help fund the lawsuit.