Growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana, Elouise Cobell wondered about the government checks that sometimes came—and sometimes didn't. The money was supposed to be paid out to the owners of private lands held in trust for American Indians since 1887 and managed by the Department of the Interior. Yet, though the government leased those lands to timber, mining, and oil companies, the revenue seldom made it back to the lands' owners. "You go to any Indian community and say, 'What's wrong with this picture?' " says Cobell, 61. "These people have oil wells pumping on their land, but they're living in shacks."
An accountant and former treasurer for her Blackfeet Nation, Cobell helped found the country's first tribal-owned national bank, the Blackfeet National Bank, in 1987. As early as the 1970s she began lobbying government officials to provide an accounting of the income generated from leased Indian lands and, when no one could give her answers, took the Department of the Interior to court in 1996. The legal battle that ensued has revealed massive fraud of Indian revenues dating back to the 19th century, a legacy that U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth dubbed "fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form."
That fight continues, but the soft-spoken Cobell—who has been granted warrior status by her tribe—has proved a formidable advocate. "I'm not easily intimidated, and I don't need anyone to do favors for me," she says. "I just want justice—and change."
*The name of this award was originally the Impact Award. In 2008, the awards were renamed as the Inspire Awards.