When Elouise Cobell, a petite Blackfeet Warrior from Montana, started asking questions about missing money from government managed Indian Trust accounts, she never imagined that one day she would be taking on the world’s most powerful government. But what she discovered as the Treasurer of her tribe was a trail of fraud and corruption leading all the way from Montana to Washington DC. Cobell v., six years in the making, is the story of her 25-year fight for justice for 500,000 Native Americans and the filing of the largest class-action lawsuit ever filed against the United States government.
In 2002, filmmaker Melinda Janko discovered an article, "A Broken Trust," in Mother Jones magazine. Driven by a passion and commitment to bring this story of injustice to the world, Melinda spent three years traveling the country with lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell and meeting the people she was fighting for. Among them, Mad Dog Kennerly, a Blackfeet Indian who makes beaded necklaces to supplement his $89 monthly oil payments; Mary Johnson, an 83-year old Navajo woman who has never been able to afford running water despite the many wells on her land; and Ruby Withrow, a Potawatomi Indian, who searched for years for answers to why her grandfather died penniless despite the oil wells that pumped 24/7 on his land.
Compelled to understand what went wrong with the government’s gross mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund, Melinda interviewed high level Department of Interior officials, the federal judge overseeing the case, The Inspector General of the Department of Interior, Senators and Congressmen, federal whistle blowers and many more in pursuit of the facts.
Today 85% of the production for Cobell v. is completed and Fire in the Belly Productions is proud to announce that on November 30, 2010 justice was finally served when Congress approved the $3.4 billion Cobell Settlement Act from President Obama and the Department of Interior. We congratulate Elouise Cobell and her team and we look forward to bringing their story to the world.
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Note from the Director: Melinda Janko
Throughout my filmmaking career, I have always been attracted to stories about the triumph of the human spirit, and people overcoming great odds. So when I went looking for a story in March 2002, I looked for one that would inspire, make a difference, and maybe even change the way we see the world. What I found was an article in Mother Jones magazine about a people, a government and a betrayal of trust. It is a story that has its roots in the 19th century but still continues today. This little known story has evolved into Cobell v.
During my research and investigation, I was shocked to find that most Americans did not know about Cobell v., the largest class action lawsuit ever brought against the federal government. How can billions of dollars belonging to some of the most impoverished people in America be unaccounted for and not be front-page news? It troubled me that mainstream media always focused on Indian wealth through gaming. Unfortunately the facts about casinos and the nouveau riche American Indians are distorted, and ignore the truth---- one in three live in poverty.
They are the invisible Indians who live amidst a grinding poverty that most Americans never see. And that is why I decided to tell this story. For if the standards of fiscal responsibility are compromised for one group of people, how safe are the rest of us? And justice denied for even one, is justice denied for all.
Through this film we hope to educate the public about this important piece of American history. I consider it a privilege to be a part of this story and I am grateful that on December 8, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Cobell Settlement Claims Act for $3.4 billion. Now we have a small measure of justice for 500,000 Indian Trust beneficiaries.
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“If this type of egregious action had been inflicted on any other ethnic group, there would have been a tremendous public outcry.” Senator John McCain (R) Arizona
“The United States government made a commitment, through solemn treaty obligations when it divided Indian lands in 1887, to hold those lands in trust, to manage them wisely, and to give any income from the sale or lease of the land to its Indians owners. Our government has never fulfilled that promise.”
Former Senator Tom Daschle (D) South Dakota
“After a century of mismanaging Indian assets, it’s time for our nation to keep our promises.”
Senator Maria Cantwell (D) Washington
“The Department’s handling of the Individual Indian Money trust has served as the gold standard for mismanagement by the federal government for more than a century.”
Federal Judge Royce Lamberth
“The Interior Department has been the Enron of federal agencies when it comes to managing Indian trust assets.”
Representative Nick J. Rahall II, (D) West Virginia
“The way these trust fund holders have been treated….is a national disgrace. If 40,000 people were cut off Social Security, there would be an uproar in Congress.”
Representative Tom Udall (D) New Mexico
“This new law will finally provide closure for hundreds of thousands of folks in Indian Country who have waited too long for justice. I want to thank Elouise Cobell for her persistence, her courage and her tireless pursuit of justice,” Baucus said. “This settlement is fully paid for and will not add a dime to the deficit. It serves as a reminder that we have a responsibility to keep fighting for good paying-jobs and education in Indian Country.”
U.S. Senator Max Baucus
Montana Blackfeet Tribal member Elouise Cobell, who first brought the suit against the federal government, thanked Baucus for his work to resolve the settlement.
“Today marks the end of a sad chapter for Native Americans victimized by the federal government. Now we can finally begin the process of restoring funds to Indian people across the nation,” Cobell said. “I want to thank Senator Baucus for being a leader in the Senate during the fight to bring closure to this issue. This resolution would not have been possible without his efforts.”
U.S. Senator Max Baucus
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Elouise Cobell is the lead plaintiff of Cobell v., and the main character of the film. We follow her on the Blackfeet reservation as she tends to her cattle on the ranch, manages the lawsuit from her tiny Blackfeet Development Office, attends the local powwow, testifies before Congress, travels across country to speak to Indian beneficiaries and steadfastly fights for justice. She is a Blackfeet Warrior and the great, granddaughter of Mountain Chief, a Blackfeet Warrior who refused to compromise with the U.S. government.
Arlene Blackie is a Navajo beneficiary who speaks no English. She once lived in a home made out of corrugated cardboard leftover from government supplies. She owns oil and gas land that once paid her $3,000 a year but her last statement from the Bureau of Indian Affairs showed a negative amount—reflecting money that she owed the oil company.
Cora Bunnie is a Navajo Indian who has three oil wells on her land. Oil crews were surveying the land when the production crew was filming. Her land was targeted as one of the 1200 new wells that were fast tracked for development under President George W. Bush. She receives checks ranging from one penny to $30 a month.
Keith Harper, is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs in Cobell v. Keith has been representing the plaintiffs since the beginning of the case in 1996. He and Elouise frequently travel through Indian Country updating Indian beneficiaries on the status of the lawsuit.
Tex Hall, Chairman of the Hidatsa, Arikura and Mandan, or the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and the former President of National Congress of American Indians, (NCAI), testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing on Potential Settlement Mechanisms for Cobell v. He is a key player in the suit as a friend of the court and has been one of the biggest advocates of settlement of the case.
Joe Christie was the former special assistant to the first Special Trustee, Paul Homan and served as the records manager for the Office of Trust Fund Management under the Clinton administration. He was considered the expert on all record management issues. Under his direction, records contaminated with the deadly hanta virus were discovered in old barns. He was wrongly stripped of his trust management and trust reform duties and threatened by defendants and their counsel.
Paul Homan was the first Special Trustee during the Clinton administration under Secretary Bruce Babbitt. He testified that the government ultimately might have to place the accounts in the hands of a receiver to cure the many problems he observed in the three years he served as Interior’s Special Trustee. (6/26/97 testimony) On 1/5/99, Secretary Bruce Babbbit issued his infamous Secretarial Order that forced Homan to resign as Special Trustee. During his tenure the Arthur Andersen report identified $2.4 billion of Tribal trust monies that could not be accounted for. Homan opposed the government’s request for Judge Lamberth’s removal and spoke out openly during his interview.
Federal Judge Royce Lamberth, a Reagan appointee, presided over the Indian Trust case for over ten years. He describes the Department of Interior’s handling of the Individual Indian Money trust as, “the gold standard for mismanagement by the federal government.” His July 12, 2005 harsh opinion of the Department of Interior’s handling of the Indian Trust Fund was the grounds for his removal in 2006. He agreed to an interview one year after he was removed from the case.
Alan Balaran was the Special Master, appointed by Judge Lamberth to investigate the Department of Interior’s handling of the Indian Trust Fund. He worked on the case for five years and traveled thousands of miles in Indian Country talking to both the beneficiaries and BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) employees. He uncovered right of way appraisals for Indian lands that were 1/10th of what non-Indians were paid. He hired computer hackers to infiltrate the Indian Trust Fund online accounts to show the vulnerability to the court. He resigned his position under pressure from the government, who accused him of bias towards the Indians.
Ross Swimmer, served as the Special Trustee for the American Indians for the Department of Interior under President George W. Bush since 2003. He was in charge of overseeing the Indian Trust Reform efforts of the Department of Interior with a budget of $3 billion. He believes the problems of the Trust were mainly due to fractionation of the land. He agreed to an interview only after Melinda agreed to follow strict government protocol. He was removed from his position under the Obama administration.
James Cason was the acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior under President George W. Bush. He testified in the majority of Indian Trust Congressional hearings. For years he refused to be interviewed. During one of the last production trips to DC his staff called Melinda and requested an interview. He stated that only $16,000 in errors, both underpayment and overpayments, have been found in the accounting of Trust Fund accounts. He was removed from his position under the Obama administration.
David Henry worked as an accountant in the Billings, Montana Bureau of Indian Affairs office. He reported millions of dollars of Indian payments that came into the Bureau of Indian Affairs office but did not go out to the Indian beneficiaries. He is a federal whistleblower and lives in poverty today.
Mad Dog Kennerly is a Blackfeet Indian who owns oil and gas land in Cutbank, Montana. He lives in a shack with no running water and makes beaded necklaces to supplement his $89 a month oil payments from the government.
Earl Devaney is the Inspector General of the Department of Interior. During his interview he said, "short of a crime, anything goes at the highest level of the Department of Interior." He discussed the lack of auditing of oil companies by the MMS (Mineral Management Services) and the re-creation of audits when audits could not be found.
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Melinda Janko (Producer, Director, and Writer) is founder and President of
Fire in the Belly Productions. Janko was the past President of Turning Point Productions, a Massachusetts based company that produced promotional videos and public service announcements for the non-profit sector.
Dea Shandera (Executive Producer) is a highly regarded producer and production, distribution and marketing executive/consultant with tenures at Paramount Pictures, The Walt Disney Company as VP of Creative Services for The Disney Channel, and MGM as Executive VP of Worldwide Marketing for television.
Jim Orr- Director of Photography
Ten-time Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Photography and Lighting Direction, Jim Orr has 19 years experience as a Director of Photography on feature films: The FlyBoys, Lost Signal, documentaries: Reclaiming Your American Dream, Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing, and reality television: A&E series, Intervention.
Stephon Litwinczuk- Associate Producer/Researcher/Assistant Editor
Assistant Editor/Researcher/Associate Producer for a 4-part, 5-hour “Behind the Masks: The story of the Screen Actors Guild” series. Associate Producer for the 2010 Turner Classic Movies’ 7-part, 7-hour “Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood” documentary series.
Kathryn Panian- Assistant Editor/Associate Producer
Got her start working on short-form documentaries for San Diego's local PBS station, KPBS-TV. She has more recently worked on longer format non-fiction programs, such as "Wishful Drinking" for HBO Documentary Films, and "Becoming Chaz," which premieres at the 2011 Sundance Film
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Fire in the Belly Productions, Inc., is an independent production company based in Poway, California that creates and develops documentary films that seek to educate and enlighten the public on a variety of social issues from all walks of life. The name, "Fire in the Belly," symbolizes commitment and passion for the stories we tell, with the common goal of "making films that make a difference."
Fire in the Belly¡¯s mission is to develop, finance, and produce entertaining, high quality, commercial films that will appeal to mainstream audiences. Adding to that commitment, the Company¡¯s long-range goal is to "pay it forward," by contributing a portion of the Company¡¯s net profits to an organization identified in each film¡¯s story.
Melinda Janko is the President of Fire in the Belly Productions, Inc.
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