BROWNING, MONT. — On a cold wind-blown slope outside town, there is a piece of hallowed ground called Ghost Ridge. It was here, a century ago, that Blackfeet Indians perished after the US government failed to deliver promised food rations.
And it is here, today, that Elouise Cobell sometimes walks as she gathers strength for her ongoing crusade: Forcing the government to hand over billions of dollars she alleges it has withheld from native Americans.
"When I'm feeling exhausted," says the Blackfeet accountant and banker, "I visit Ghost Ridge and I wonder how painful it must've been for my people to starve to death in the middle of winter. Then I have a chat with myself ... 'Elouise, what are you complaining about? You're a wimp if you can't deal with this.' "
Mrs. Cobell's relentless attention to the details of financial accounting has made the bashful woman a living legend in the eyes of native Ameri- cans and a thorn in the side of bureaucrats in two presidential administrations.
She's already won several skirmishes in her David-like battle with the government Goliath. Her class-action lawsuit against the US government seeks $12 billion in restitution for revenues owed from mining, logging, and other development on millions of acres of Indian land.
The suit, on behalf of 500,000 native Americans, both living and dead, revolves around the inability of the US Interior and Treasury Departments to provide written records of what happened to billions of dollars owed by the Individual Indian Monies trust fund, set up a century ago to manage Indian lands and the revenues produced by them. The trust currently generates about $500 million a year with payments ranging from pennies to millions of dollars for individual Indians, depending on the size of their shareholdings.
This case is the native-American equivalent of the Enron scandal, says Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians. "The only difference is that the Cobell case is bigger ... the government is playing the role of Enron, and this has been going on a lot longer."
The case has consumed the energies of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who faces contempt-of-court charges because she was unable to produce financial records.
Numerous investigations have confirmed shoddy bookkeeping for more than a century. When pressed by US District Judge Royce Lamberth, Ms. Norton and her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, admitted that many key accounting documents have been lost, destroyed, or never existed.
The Interior Department declined to comment on the case.
As a child on the Blackfeet reservation not far from the Canadian border, Cobell was raised without plumbing, electricity, telephone, or running water. A vivid memory is of her parents and grandparents sitting around a woodstove complaining about government checks not arriving or amounting to less than they should have been. She often asked why that was.
Only after serving as Blackfeet tribe treasurer did she get answers. Noticing irregularities in royalty checks to tribal members, she began to keep records.
"When I tried to correlate the payments with government books kept by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, nothing matched up. Some months, a check would arrive, but then it might take months before the next one came in the mail," she recalls.
What started out as her challenge to reconcile differences on the Blackfeet Reservation broadened to dozens of other reservations and the accounts of hundreds of thousands of Indians. The government admits it doesn't even have valid addresses for 50,000 who are due money.
Left incredulous by such revelations, Judge Lamberth has called it one of the worst cases of government fiscal irresponsibility in US history.
Since the end of the frontier era in the West, Indian communities have suffered severe poverty, says Jim Adams, managing editor of the newspaper Indian Country Today, which devotes a story nearly daily to the Cobell case. He says there's no doubt that fixing the fund would put reservation citizens on a more equal economic footing with neighboring communities.
Congressman Dennis Rehberg (R) of Montana, whose own non-Indian relatives operated stores on the Crow Reservation in the state, says that many woes of native communities are directly related to the fact that Indians never fully understood the assets they control because government record-keeping kept them in the dark.
Cobell herself is actively involved in rebuilding her community, where unemployment exceeds 75 percent. When she's not off monitoring the trial or delivering lectures, the wife of a Blackfeet rancher and mother of a grown son directs a business development fund on the reservation here.
Cobell's office resides in an old building suffering from a bad case of chipped paint. Stacked around her are boxes full of legal and accounting documents, walls covered with Indian artwork, and a tidy desk with an accountant's calculator. Behind her are photos of her and national leaders.
Despite a growing circle of supporters, Cobell confesses that, often since filing the lawsuit in 1996, she has felt isolated.
"In the beginning, there was just Elouise and a few other people. Along the way, she has confronted resistance from the government and other Indians, but today her resolve has brought a lot of very influential people together," says her close friend, The Rev. Dan Powers, a Jesuit priest at St. Anne's Catholic Parish in nearby Heart Butte.
Cobell also has many detractors including some native Americans. Earl Old Person, Blackfeet tribal chairman, worries that a settlement that removes the BIA from trust management could hurt Indians, providing grounds for terminating the government's trust relationship with tribes that depend on funding.
With a pained expression, Cobell recalls BIA officials calling her "stupid" to her face as she persisted in tracking trust-fund money. But she had her day when the MacArthur Foundation named her a recipient of its prestigious genius award, a fellowship given annually to those making a profound difference in society. She applied her $300,000 award to lawsuit expenses.
"One of the persistent rumors I always hear is that I'm going to somehow collect millions of dollars in reward money for taking on the lawsuit," she says, shaking her head. "I stand to gain no more than any other trust fund recipient.... It's the collective impact of a settlement that I'm most optimistic about."
The government has fiercely resisted a settlement, and just a few weeks ago, Secretary Norton announced a costly new plan to fix the broken accounting system on top of $600 million already spent to putthe trust-fund books in order. But Indians and some Interior officials aren't confident it can work.
Cobell says the government ought to just admit the system is irretrievably flawed, stop throwing taxpayer money away, and settle the case.
"I've heard from friends that the government thinks I'm tired and that eventually they'll wear me down, so that I'll just go away," Cobell says.
But with the haunting outline of Ghost Ridge serving as a constant reminder of challenges confronted by native people in the past, Cobell says she has no intention to surrender.