Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, announced last week he has nominated Elouise Cobell for the national Citizen Service Before Self award given to three people each year.
Cobell was the lead plaintiff on the groundbreaking land trust misuse settlement approved late in 2011 by the federal government after almost 16 years of fighting by Cobell and her attorneys.
The historic settlement calls for $3.4 billion to be distributed to qualified plaintiffs and to buy back a patchwork of trust land but payouts from the settlements have been held up recently.
Tester sent this opinion piece with the announcement:
Every year, only three Americans are honored with the Citizen Service Before Self award—one of the most prestigious honors awarded by our nation. This year, I nominated my friend Elouise Cobell to be one of them.
Elouise pursued justice and fairness for all Indian people until she passed away last fall.
The Citizen Service Before Self award recognizes citizen heroes who sacrifice themselves to improve the lives of others. The honor goes to ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things. Elouise Cobell earned a place in our nation’s history for doing extraordinary things.
As treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation, Elouise discovered mismanagement of Indian trust accounts more than 25 years ago. She found that the U.S. government wasn’t meeting its trust obligations to pay royalties owed to tribes and individuals. So she went to work, righting a century of wrongs. Her landmark lawsuit will return billions of dollars to Indian people.
Elouise didn’t become involved in this groundbreaking case because she wanted to be a hero. She simply wanted justice. She expected the government to hold up its end of the bargain. Her work putting service before self is inspiring. It was courageous. And future generations will be better for it.
Elouise would be proud to know that her life’s work continues. Montana’s Indian leaders are working hard to improve hope and opportunity for all Indian communities. As a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, it is my honor to be a part of that effort. Whether it’s responsibly tapping into energy resources, working to prevent crime and violence in Indian Country, or sending more children to college—we are all inspired by Elouise’s leadership.
Elouise Cobell spent a lifetime putting “citizen service before self.” Regardless of my nomination, she will always be a hero in Montana and across this country. And it’s my hope that her amazing story will inspire all Americans to put service before self.