(CN) – Elouise Cobell, who led the class-action lawsuit that forced the federal government to pay $3.4 billion for mismanaging Native Americans’ trust funds for more than a century, died Sunday. She was 65.
A member of the Blackfeet Tribe, Cobell made headlines in 1996 with her federal class action that accused the United States of stealing money from trusts set up as part of the 1887 Dawes Act.
The Act was supposed to set up trusts to pay royalties to Native Americans for use of their lands, though little money exchanged hands.
After a 13-year legal battle, the federal government agreed to pay $3.4 billion to settle the claims, the money representing oil, gas, mineral and other royalties from more than 50 million acres of tribal lands.
Cobell and the other plaintiffs estimated that the tribes were actually owed $47 billion, but accepted the settlement to help aging tribal members who had fought for the money for more than a decade.
The settlement was challenged in 2010 by descendants of slaves who were owned by the so-called Five Civilized Tribes. They called the settlement racially discriminatory, with the United States paying off descendants of treasonous Indian slave-owners who took the South’s side in the Civil War instead of paying the descendants of the Indians’ slaves.
But in June this year a federal judge approved the settlement, which became the largest payment the U.S. government ever made to Native Americans.