On November 22, President Obama will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to former Blackfeet tribal community leader Elouise Cobell.
On November 16, President Obama announced 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the final time he will confer the honor. The nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom is presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
During his reveal of the 21 individuals at the White House, President Obama described the honor as “a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better.”
One of those individuals, Elouise Cobell, was a Blackfeet tribal community leader and advocate for Native American self-determination and financial independence. Along with being the great-granddaughter of Mountain Chief, one of the legendary Indians leaders of the West, she is best known for leading a 16-year landmark legal fight against the federal government in the class action suit Cobell v. Salazar. The case challenged the United States’ mismanagement of trust funds belonging to more than 500,000 Native Americans. In the end, Cobell won the case, and the government approved a $3.4 billion settlement. The settlement also provided for the establishment of a $60 million scholarship fund, the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund, in her honor.
In addition to her activism, Cobell was rancher and a banker, and she founded Blackfeet National Bank, the first national bank on a reservation and first bank owned by Native Americans.
Known to many as Little Bird Woman, Cobell died on October 21, 2011. She is remembered as a visionary force who restored tribal homelands to the Blackfeet Nation and inspired a new generation of Native Americans to fight for the rights of others.
The other recipients in this group of Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees include basketball players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan; comedian Ellen DeGeneres; actors Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, and Cicely Tyson; singers Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen; polymath physicist Richard Garwin; power couple Bill and Melinda Gates; architect Frank Gehry; mathematician and computer scientist Margaret H. Hamilton; computer scientist Grace Hopper; artist Maya Lin; producer and screenwriter Lorne Michaels; attorney Newt Minow; president of Miami Dade College Eduardo Padrón; and broadcaster Vin Scully.
The official Medal of Freedom ceremony will take place on November 22. For more information on Cobell, check out the documentary film 100 Years: One Woman's Fight for Justice.