To honor her significant contributions to Indian Country, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is recommending Elouise Cobell for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
In a letter to President Obama, Tester endorsed Cobell’s leadership and her fight for justice for Native American families. Cobell was a Blackfeet tribal member who filed the landmark lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar, which led to the compensation of $3.4 billion to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans for the mismanagement of Indian trust land.
“Throughout her life, Elouise Cobell brought about real change in Indian Country and her story continues to serve as an inspiration and reminder to everyone that one person can truly make a difference,” Tester wrote. “I urge you to honor Elouise Cobell’s legacy of fighting for the rights of Native Americans with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Cobell’s case against the federal government was settled in 2009, 13 years after it was originally filed in U.S. District Court. Cobell passed away two years later in 2011. Tester attended her funeral.
The first distribution of Cobell payments was made to Native American families in 2013. Additional payments through the Department of the Interior’s Land Buy-Back Program are ongoing, and to date, nearly $750 million in payments through the Buy-Back Program have been made to tens of thousands of Native Americans for selling their fractional interests in land to their Tribe.
As treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe, Cobell also founded the first tribally-owned national bank located on an Indian reservation. The Blackfeet National Bank is now the Native American Bank and provides access to capital and financial services to more than 20 tribes across the nation.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award that can be presented by the United States. According to the White House, the award may be presented “to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
In 2008, Tester recommended Crow tribal historian and veteran Joe Medicine Crow for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was honored by Obama in August of 2009.