Site of Montana Community Service Program Honors Inspirational Indian Leader

Since 1991, VISIONS teens have worked on the Blackfeet Indian reservation in Montana. One of four VISIONS teen community service programs in the U.S., the Blackfeet hosts student volunteers every summer in July and August. We live on the Flatiron Ranch, a stunning conservation easement that borders Glacier National Park.

In the late 90s, VISIONS had the honor of meeting Elouise Cobell. Elouise was a heroine of native people nationwide for her work to recuperate billions of dollars that were mismanaged by the US government. She became a beloved friend and partner of VISIONS, a guest speaker for our groups, and the person responsible for welcoming us to our delightful home on the ranch.

She passed away in 2011, and this year the members of the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust honored Eloise by naming the nature reserve for her Blackfeet name, Yellow Bird Woman. Her legacy is forever tied to the special landscape of the ranch.


By: Terry Tatsey, Blackfeet Indian Land Trust

Under a brilliant blue sky and buffeting wind, members of the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust (BILT) remembered the legacy of their beloved former board member Elouise Cobell by naming a nature sanctuary in her honor. The newly named Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary, commemorated on September 29, encompasses 1,160 acres of the former Flatiron Ranch outside Browning.

Cobell championed protection of this land by founding the BILT and the sanctuary represents one of the first conservation easements held by the trust. The BILT Board recognized the importance of renaming this property to honor Elouise, as she worked continuously with many people to secure the land and develop management plans.

BILT is a collaborative effort between the Blackfeet nation, its neighboring private landowners, The Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The ceremony was conducted by Marvin Weatherwax, a Vietnam-era POW and highly respected member of the Blackfeet nation. After blessing the land in the four directions, he officially named the sanctuary in honor of Cobell praying that, “All those who walk on this ground feel its warmth.” He called on everyone to continue the dream that Elouise held for this land and the Blackfeet people.

Cobell, whose Blackfeet name is Yellow Bird Woman, became a heroine for native people by waging a 15-year legal battle over the federal government’s management of Indian trust funds. The funds, estimated at billions of dollars, were raised through payments for mining and oil extraction, grazing, logging, and other uses of tribal land dating back to the late 1800’s.

After repeated trials and appeals, a settlement was reached, in 2009, for $3.4 billion dollars.

With the suit finally behind her, Cobell’s son, Turk, said that his mother had hoped to now spend her days enjoying her grandchildren and reinvigorating the work of the BILT. Her untimely death, in 2011, cut short those plans.

As a member of the BILT Board of Directors, Turk Cobell says he hopes to carry out his mother’s vision for the organization that includes not only conservation and appreciation of Blackfeet land, but education of the people who were so dear to her heart.

Turk Cobell travelled from his home in Nevada, where he is President of Native Hospitality Advisors, Inc, to join in the ceremony honoring his mother. The BILT Board is now moving to implement some of the activities needed to realize the vision on which the trust was founded. They encourage members of the community to come forward and share their ideas about the future of this land.

BILT Board members in attendance were Terry Tatsey, Director of Institutional Development for Blackfeet Community College, Jim Scott, Vice-chair of the Board of First Interstate BancSystems, and Eva Cobell, Elouise’s sister-in-law. Also in attendance were Nature Conservancy staff and board members from Montana and across the United States as well as other members of the Blackfeet community.

Read more about Eloise

VISIONS in The New York Times