Cobell, relative died on same day,
neither seeing restitution
By Gwen Florio
October 17, 2011
Condolences from around the nation poured into Montana Monday following the death of Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet woman who devoted the final 15 years of her life to recovering billions of dollars bilked from Indian people by the federal government.
On the Blackfeet Reservation, they also mourned James Mad Dog Kennerly.
Like Cobell, Kennerly succumbed on Sunday to cancer. The two were related by marriage.
And like Cobell, Kennerly never saw any of the money due him from the historic $3.4 billion Indian trust settlement for which Cobell fought so hard.
"That's what's so sad about all of this," Cobell's sister Julene Kennerly said Monday. "Neither of them will get to see the end."
The settlement, announced in 2009 and approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, faces an appeal that could stall payments for years.
Cobell herself was keenly aware of the toll taken by the delay, repeatedly citing the age of many of the estimated 500,000 beneficiaries.
"Every day that an elder passes on, it hurts me because they died without their restitution," she told a University of Montana audience in March.
"It's not a joke," Dennis Gingold, an attorney who worked with Cobell on the case, said Monday. "There are people who don't have two nickels to rub together, who need the money to fill propane tanks for the winter."
Kennerly was one of those people.
In the documentary "Cobell v.," the maintenance man and craftsman holds up the paperwork for the $89 annual payment he received on $6,000 worth of oil pumped from his land. Kennerly lived in a small home where, in between odd jobs, he beaded necklaces and painted drums, said Julene Kennerly, former dean of academics at Blackfeet Community College and Browning's first woman mayor.
"He was a craftsman," she said. "His necklaces in a store would go for $75 or $100, but he would just do them for all of us."
He also held strong opinions about Cobell's lawsuit, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress about the need for the settlement, she said.
"It was about fairness," she said.
Her brother-in-law was in poor health and depended mostly on his Social Security payment, she said.
"He definitely could have used the money" from the settlement, she said. "So many of our elders didn't live to see it. Never once did she (Cobell) think she would be gone, too," Julene Kennerly said.
Gingold, of Washington, D.C., said the appeal, and the further delay it represented, was much on Cobell's mind when he visited her Thursday at Benefis Healthcare in Great Falls, where she was in hospice. In April, Cobell traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for surgery for what Gingold termed "an aggressive, terrible cancer."
Her fragile health was complicated by the fact that a few years ago, she donated part of her kidney to her husband, he said. During a trip to Washington to persuade Congress to approve the settlement, Cobell collapsed on the sidewalk and had to be taken to a hospital, he said.
"But she fought on," said Gingold. Although Cobell knew her cancer was terminal, "the question was, for how long."
Cobell, 65, died at around 9 p.m. Sunday, a little more than 19 hours after Kennerly, 70, passed away at Blackfeet Hospital in Browning. His funeral will be Wednesday. Hers is scheduled for Saturday.
It's entirely likely, said Julene Kennerly, that the two will remain vigilant.
"Maybe they're there," she said, "making sure justice is done."