Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe who founded the first-ever Native-American-owned bank and later was the lead plaintiff in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against the federal government, died Sunday of complications from cancer. She was 65.

Cobell founded the Blackfeet National Bank in Browning, Mont., in 1987, four years after the community’s only bank failed and left tribe members with few banking options. Cobell, who was the tribe’s treasurer at the time, first tried to persuade mainstream banks to open an office in Browning, but when her efforts failed she committed $1 million of the tribe’s money to charter the first bank to ever open on an Indian reservation. Today, the bank now known as Native American Bank has $77 million of assets and branches in Browning and Denver.

Cobell, however, will be better remembered for leading an epic legal fight against the Department of Interior for mismanaging billions of dollars held in trust for Native Americans.

The government created the Native American Trust Fund in the 1880s to hold and distribute royalties owed to Indian tribes from farmers, ranchers and other business interests that leased their land. In an interview with American Banker in 1998, Cobell said that she first suspected that the government had been shortchanging tribes fore decades when she interned at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington in the 1960s. http://www.americanbanker.com/issues/163_226/-103643-1.html

"I couldn't believe the way these people were treated," said Ms. Cobell. "This was their money, but they weren't being paid. That's when it really started to hit home for me that I had to do something."

Cobell filed a class-action suit against the government in 1996 on behalf of nearly 300 tribes and, after many years of legal wrangling, the two sides agreed to settle for $3.4 billion in 2009.  President Obama signed off on the settlement in December 2010 and U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan approved this past June, calling Cobell a hero who has "accomplished more for individual Native Americans that any other individual I can think of in recent history."

Cobell, however, did not live to see her fellow Native Americans benefit from the settlement. Several members of the class action have filed appeals seeking more accurate accounting of how much money was lost or mishandled, so it appears the funds will be tied up at least into 2012.

In a statement Monday, President Obama praised Cobell for standing up for the rights of Native Americans. “Elouise spoke out when she saw that the Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect on behalf of more than 300,000 of her fellow Native Americans. Because she did, I was able to sign into law a piece of legislation that finally provided a measure of justice to those who were affected.”

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