Native American Activist to Receive Medal of Freedom

(CN) – From professional basketball players to scientists, 21 Americans will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on Nov. 22.

“From scientists, philanthropists and public servants to activists, athletes and artists, these 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

The 2016 recipients include Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Indian from Browning, Montana, who led a 15-year legal fight against the U.S. government over mismanagement of tribal trust accounts. The trust accounts held money for Native Americans for their oil, gas, timber and mining leases.

In 2009, Cobell’s legal team won a $3.4 billion settlement from the federal government, with the money being parceled out to Native American tribes around the country. Cobell died in 2011.

She was also the founder of the Native American Bank in Browning, Montana, a reservation town on the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier National Park.

When Native Americans on tribal trust land lease mineral, mining, grazing, timber or agriculture rights, their money goes to a trust account with the U.S. Department of the Interior, then to the tribal landowner. Cobell discovered that the money supposed to be in a client’s trust account was not there while helping him review the account.

As she began to look into the discrepancy, she found dozens of other mismanaged trust accounts. She ended up filing one of the largest class actions against the U.S. government in history. Her suit, Cobell v. Norton, claimed the government owed some 500,000 Native Americans over $100 billion in lease payments dating back to 1887, when the Allotment Act was passed. The act allowed the U.S. government to parcel out Indian reservations to private individuals.

“They’d have oil wells in their back yards and have no idea of what was going on,” Cobell said in a 2009 interview with Montana Living magazine. “They didn’t understand what kind of money they were supposed to be getting off the land. Then I just started at working on unpeeling the onion and found this horrible mess.”

Cobell’s fight was a giant legal battle. She said the Justice Department, Department of the Interior and Department of Treasury had over 100 lawyers on their side, while she had five attorneys in Washington.

“They’re throwing millions of dollars at this case. Sometimes I wonder why they’re going to such horrible ends to do what was right,” she said in the 2009 interview. “That tells me that somebody is getting rich off this broken system and it’s certainly not the Indians.”

Leading Cobell’s case was Dennis Gingold, one of the top banking attorneys in the nation. “With his dedication and commitment, we’ve made it this far,” Cobell said.

The case was settled in 2009.

Other recipients of the Medal of Freedom this year include: basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; comedian Ellen DeGeneres; actor Robert De Niro, physicist Richard Garwin; philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates; architect Frank Gehry; scientist Margaret H. Hamilton; actor Tom Hanks; computer pioneer Grace Hopper (posthumous); basketball great Michael Jordan; artist Maya Lin; “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels; attorney Newt Minow; educator Eduardo Padrón; actor Robert Redford; singer Diana Ross; Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully; singer Bruce Springsteen; and actress Cicely Tyson.

The award ceremony will be streamed on Nov. 22.

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