Elouise Cobell's only desire was for a small bank to provide financial services for her and her neighbors on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana.
When the area's only bank closed in 1983 and no others could be persuaded to take its place, there was only one option left for the Blackfeet community: form their own.
"If we wanted to save our community, we had to act," Ms. Cobell said.
Backed by the tribe's own funds, she led the effort to establish Blackfeet National Bank. The Browning, Mont., institution was the first tribe-owned bank to get a national charter.
Ten years later, Ms. Cobell has been chosen for a "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago. Ms. Cobell, who is secretary of the bank's board of directors was one of 23 MacArthur Fellows named last week in fields as diverse as painting and number theory.
The judging criteria include exceptional creativity, a capacity to make a significant and beneficial difference in human thought and action, and a moderate level of income, said Catharine R. Stimpson, director of the fellows program. Candidates are nominated secretly by appointed scouts.
The MacArthur awards are paid out over five years and range from $150,000 to $375,000, based on the recipient's age. They come with no strings attached. Ms. Cobell, 51, was awarded $310,000.
"The board was taken with her leading role in creating the bank, the significance of that bank as a positive national model, and her general work on behalf of economic development for Native Americans," Ms. Stimpson said.
Necessity spurred her to help found the bank, Ms. Cobell said. "We just ran out of options," she said. "The only option left was that the tribe itself had to start a bank."
Blackfeet National, which began with $1 million of capital, has grown to $17 million of assets.
It gained notoriety in 1994 when Florida's insurance commissioner tried to prevent it from offering the Retirement CD, a controversial tax- deferred, annuity-like product backed by federal deposit insurance.
Blackfeet sued Florida but lost in U.S. District Court. The bank appealed, and the case is awaiting a decision from a federal appeals court in Atlanta.
The idea of forming the bank came to Ms. Cobell in 1983 when, after almost 70 years in business, the only nearby bank serving the Blackfeet reservation closed-leaving the tribe with nowhere to go for even the simplest financial services.
"We didn't even have a place to cash a check or get cash," said Ms. Cobell. "People were leaving the reservation in droves to do their banking and then they also did their grocery and clothing shopping while off the reservation."
Attempts to draw established banks into the area were fruitless. Outside institutions were reluctant to work under the unfamiliar rules of tribal sovereignty, with its independent court system. Low per capita income and negative stereotyping added to the difficulty, Ms. Cobell said.
Ms. Cobell, with a college background in finance and 13 years as the Blackfeet community treasurer, led the drive to establish a bank.
"I'm a banker by default," she said. "I had to learn the entire profession by self-education and from other people."
"We really have a niche because we know how to do deals in Indian country and we know how to service our people," Ms. Cobell said.
Far from resting on past or present laurels, Ms. Cobell has aggressive plans for Blackfeet National. The bank expects to form a holding company in 1998 and has plans to offer consulting help to other Indian tribes interested in establishing their own banks.
Regarding the instant celebrity that came with the MacArthur grant-which made her "cry for hours"-Ms. Cobell said: "It's unreal to me. I'm just an ordinary person."