Elouise Cobell, largely unknown outside the Native American community, is a hero not only to Native Americans but to all Americans. Indeed, every American who intuits that Congress and presidential administrations have mismanaged their taxpayer dollars should embrace her courage, her assiduous leadership, and her determination. She exemplifies what one person can do if the will to power takes over their spirit, and they doggedly continue until they achieve success despite egregious circumstances.
The unforgettable and extremely current documentary 100 Years, directed by Melinda Janko, chronicles the woman Blackfeet warrior from Montana in her quest to obtain a final justice for 300,000 Native Americans. Over generations they had been defrauded, swindled, and impoverished by systemic negligence and malfeasance in government institutions including the historic Office of Indian Affairs (1915), the Department of the Interior (1992), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1992) and the U.S. Treasury. The documentary discloses how Elouise Cobell engaged in a 15-year struggle to take on the U.S. government and hold it to account for their wrongdoing and corruption against Native Americans over a period of 100 years.
Janko provides a clear and cogent backstory of Cobell’s life as a self-starter, activist, banker, and tribal elder of the Blackfeet Nation who founded the first national bank located on an Indian reservation that was owned by a Native American tribe. That is just one of her many accomplishments. Janko uses supporting photos of archival documents and pictures over the 100 year period of Native American history out west, with voice over comments and-on-the-ground footage of Cobell’s activities. She captures Cobell protesting and celebrating with Native Americans and includes her visits to Washington, D.C. agencies and elsewhere. Janko extensively interviews Cobell and has commentary from senators, government officials, tribal members, lawyers and others.
Through incisive footage Janko outlines the incredible journey of how Cobell became involved with the Native American Rights Fund as lead plaintiff in the largest class action lawsuit against the federal government. And she takes us through to the end of the journey and shows how Cobell and the NARF finally locate improperly stored records which had to be sifted through and verified to ultimately bring about a win of the suit so Native Americans could begin to receive a corrected amount for their land leased oil, mineral and gas royalties.
Cobell was uniquely suited to the task of litigating against the U.S. government, whose historic track record against Native Americans has been and still is most shameful in its abusiveness, recalcitrance, exploitation, martial oppression and genocide. Cobell’s background and obligations as treasurer of her tribe and protector of her people motivated her to ask questions and dig deep to follow the money the government gave in payment to Native Americans for the use of their lands.
She was particularly curious about how the Indian Trust Fund under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury and the Bureau of Indian Affairs/Department of the Interior derived their accounting system to pay Native Americans (owners of land allotments given under the Dawes Act), a monthly check for the lands the government leased and the Bueau of Indian Affairs managed for them through the trust account. The Indian Trust Fund is the combined holding of all the funds collected from Indian land parcels that were leased to various corporations for agricultural purposes, minerals, gas and oil extractions over a period of 100 years.
Janko follows the history of the litigation back to the Dawes Act, an agreement for the Native Americans that traded citizenship in the American government for the government division of tribal lands among the tribes’ individual members in various acreages which would be managed and held in trust by the United States government. The agreement went through a number of iterations under various administrations. However, the Native Americans were receiving little viable monies from the government to the point that in 1915 a Congressional Commission who had been prompted to investigate the Administration of the Office of Indian Affairs found that the accounting was so egregiously negligent they stated: “there is left an inducement to fraud, corruption, and institutional incompetence almost beyond the possibility of comprehension.”
Nothing changed over the years, even though in 1934 the land divisions stopped and the individual Native American trusts were made perpetual. However, this was a sop because the Native Americans had no way of knowing to whom their land was being leased, how much the government was charging the leaseholders and what should be their proportionate share of the royalty amounts for payment of oil or minerals (in some cases this was in the millions), extracted from their land.
The more Cobell researched the Native American stakeholders from past to present and started to meet them and ask them questions, the more startling and upsetting the information was that she received. In practically every instance including in her own life, the conditions these stakeholders lived under were unconscionable; they lived without running water or electricity and had a meager food supply because the checks they received were negligible.
In one instance of horrific abuse which Cobell discusses that she kept in her spirit to motivate her when things became impossible, she relates the story of the Blackfeet Starvation Winter. After the buffalo were gone, they had to depend on the government for rations which had been reduced and then didn’t come the winter of 1883-84. Around 500-600 Native Americans starved to death. They are buried on Ghost Ridge, a sacred burial ground. Janko includes footage of Cobell and archived pictures of the reservation where this occurred. Interestingly, the Academy short-listed “On Ghost Ridge” for the “2017 Best Song Award,” performed by Yuna and Nicholas Pike in the film.
For a decade Cobell rooted around doing research, accumulating evidence as she propelled a new leg of activism. As President of the Intertribal Monitoring Association she tirelessly petitioned representatives and senators in Washington D.C. and at the offending agencies (The Department of the Interior, The Bureau of Indian Affairs), demanding they reform their accounting methods and effectively meet their fiduciary responsibilities.
There was stalling after a House Committee on Government Operations investigated and found that The Bureau of Indian Affairs had mismanaged the Indian Trust Fund and Indian trust assets. And nothing was done after Congress enacted the Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994. The only thing that happened was more Native Americans died in impoverishment. They had yet to receive a proper accounting of the money owed to him for land managed by the federal government in a trust account, let alone any of that money which by the 1990s was in the billions.
Janko does a superb job of shadowing Cobell to the parcels of land where oil wells are pumping and resources are being extracted to show the reality of what is happening. She interviews Native Americans like Cora Bunnie, a Navajo Indian who has three oil wells on her land but receives checks from the Indian Trust Fund from $.01 to $30.00. Janko films interviews and check amounts from other Native Americans like Mad Dog Kennerly, a Blackfeet Indian who only receives a $89 month check for the oil royalties which are not enough to live on. He must sell his beaded necklaces to supplement the meager and incorrectly accounted for royalties. And we are reminded of the statistics Cobell sites that one in three Native Americans live in poverty.
The examination of how the circumstances evolved that reduced Cobell’s ancestors and the tribes to poverty though the lands they held were producing billions over time is a story of benign wickedness that Janko lays at the doorstep of the major, “unwitting” players, the agencies set up to “help” Native Americans. These players responsible for the fiduciary breaches and delays were uncaring, unsympathetic individuals, hiding behind the assurance that Native American’s lack of education and understanding gave officials a carte blanche opportunity to defraud and impoverish them indefinitely.
But for Elouise Cobell, the NARF, congressmen and senators who did care, the Native Americans would not have received a judgement of over $3 billion dollars. But Janko does note that was a compromise and settlement would have been further delayed if they pushed to gain the more appropriate amount of $333 billion dollars that is closer to the amount owed the Native Americans over 100 Years. The amount may even be more since the government destroyed documentation and files.
Janko’s cinematography has elements of beauty and poetry. The film’s “eye-opening” themes are legion. They concern the bureaucratic banality of evil, government abuse, negligence, mismanagement, corruption and intentional delay as a lawsuit tactic, so members of the class die off before there is a reckoning. The film is a wake up call to American citizens. How easy it is to dupe and defraud citizens who lack the knowledge, the strength or the will to hold the government accountable.
What is startling is that the situation is ongoing and systemic even with the best and most honorable of administrations. What happens when an administration and leadership does not believe in being held accountable for the impact of policies that are egregiously damaging and unjust?
The film is a must see. Check the schedule for where it is playing next.