Elouise Cobell grew up on the windswept Blackfeet reservation, on a family ranch with no electricity, no phone and no running water.

They may have been poor, but they were rich in love and a sense of family, Cobell said. The middle child of nine kids, she learned everyone had to pitch in, work hard and work together.

"I've never been a quitter," she said. "My mother was a real strong guiding force. She always said, 'I didn't raise weak women.'"

Today at age 56, Cobell is focusing her strength on a David-and-Goliath battle with the U.S. government.

She is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, representing an estimated 500,000 American Indians who are seeking repayment of $10 billion the federal government has mismanaged, lost and cheated them of over the past 130 years.

Striving to correct a century of injustice and broken promises, Cobell has sometimes been compared to Rosa Parks.

Cobell has been winning in court. Federal Judge Royce Lamberth has decried the government's "egregious misconduct," ordered an accounting, and found two Clinton-era Cabinet secretaries in contempt for failing to fix the problem. Now he's considering a third contempt charge against Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

And still, the government hasn't figured out how to account for the money it was supposed to hold in trust for individual Indians whose lands it leased out for grazing, timber cutting and oil drilling.

"Our case makes Enron look like a little tiny pimple," Cobell said in an interview from her Browning office. "It's worse because it's the United States government covering up, lying, breaching its trust.

"They stole people's entire life savings," she said. "They robbed an entire race of people."

On Saturday, Cobell - who attended a one-room country schoolhouse and dropped out of college to care for her dying mother - received an honorary doctorate from Montana State University, the first Native American woman to receive MSU's highest honor.

"It's a very exciting time for me," Cobell said. "I'm totally amazed."

As a 4-year-old girl, she practically chained herself to a school desk until her dad agreed to let her start school, she said. Who ever thought that little girl would grow up to challenge the government?

"If you do see something is wrong, don't ignore it. One thing I'm grateful for in this country … you can make a difference."

Promise of U.S. government

Cobell tried for 20 years to persuade the government to fix the Individual Indian Monies Trust before resorting to a lawsuit.

She first became aware of the problem as a child. In the evenings, relatives and neighbors would visit her parents, Catherine and Polite Pepion. "'I didn't get my money,'" they'd say. Or, "'If I get my lease money, I'd get my children some clothes.'"

Cobell attended a private business college in Great Falls, and in 1967 began studying business and home economics at MSU in Bozeman. As a work-study student, she had a job in the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Browning office. She saw Indian people come in and ask for their lease money.

"I didn't like the way they were treated," Cobell said. "They were told, 'Come back later.' It really bothered me. I thought, this money belongs to people, why is it so hard to get their money?"

She asked the same questions when she became the Blackfeet tribal treasurer in 1976. She started asking government officials about the trust money. She kept asking, all the way up to Congress and the White House.

It wasn't a welfare check or handout she was seeking.

Back in 1877, Congress tried to force Indians to assimilate into white society by dividing up tribal lands among individual Indians. Two-thirds of all Indian land was allowed to pass into white ownership. The rest, the individual Indian allotments, were held in trust by the federal government, which was to lease out the land and send checks to the owners.

But the government failed to keep track of payments or who should receive them. Some Indians did receive checks for hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, but with no explanations or balance statements showing how much should be in each account. And while individuals' land had valuable oil and cattle leases, the Indian owners couldn't afford health care, decent housing or sometimes groceries, Cobell said.

Congress passed a reform law in 1994, but the federal government still didn't fix the problem. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt refused to meet with Cobell. The last straw came when she met then-Attorney General Janet Reno at a conference, requested a meeting and was brushed off.

"You ought to be ashamed," Cobell told a Reno underling. "People are dying … in all Indian communities. They don't have access to their money."

The class-action lawsuit was filed in 1996. To pay for it, Cobell raised $9 million from private foundations, whose directors couldn't believe such injustice was happening in modern-day America.

The good fight

Cobell was driving from the reservation on Dec. 21, 1999, when attorney Dennis Gingold phoned her and said, "'How does it feel to be victorious? The judge just ruled in our favor.'"

She pulled over to the side of the road. "I cried and cried."

The government appealed, but Lamberth's ruling was upheld unanimously by an appeals court. Lamberth's ruling required full accounting by the government, and he retained jurisdiction over the case for five years to make sure it gets done.

However, not a single account has been straightened out yet. It turned out that since the government had no idea where to send the Indians' money, billions had just gone into the federal treasury, reducing the national debt.

If a bank had ripped off individual accounts like that, Cobell said, it would be shut down "in a New York second … and everybody responsible would go to jail."

Indian people weren't shocked that the government had mismanaged their money, because they had always known that, said Mary Lukin, a Blackfeet who directs an MSU program for underprivileged students and who nominated Cobell for the honorary doctorate.

What amazed people, Lukin said, was how extensive the problem was.

The lawsuit is a landmark because the government is being forced to admit its own injustices, said Walter Fleming, MSU associate professor of Native American Studies.

"This notion of the 'Great White Father' is being torn down," he said.

Although outside auditors once declared it impossible to straighten out the accounts, and many trust records have been lost, burned, flooded or infested with rats, Cobell doesn't think it impossible.

"We need to fight the good fight," Cobell said. "This is the good fight."

Pint-size power

Cobell sometimes feels discouraged. Some tribal leaders have criticized the lawsuit. And in December when the federal judge discovered any hacker could get into the Interior Department's computer system and tamper with Indian trust accounts, he shut down the system. Many Indian people called her, angry their lease checks had stopped completely.

There are high points, however. She walked into the Native American Bank in Browning a few days ago and a stranger thanked her for all her hard work.

Cobell was a leader in founding the Blackfeet National Bank, the nation's first Indian-owned bank, 15 years ago after the only bank in poverty-stricken Browning closed. A "pint-size" bank with only $1 million in capital, it became a powerful force for launching new businesses and inspiring other tribes to do the same.

Today Cobell can drive through Browning and see new projects the bank has financed - a Blackfeet Community College building, Glacier restaurant, a photo studio, motel, car wash, video store, souvenir business, Subway sandwich shop, dollar store and Post Office.

Now the Blackfeet bank has merged with the Native American Bank, formed by 18 tribes as a way to create larger loans.

"I actually see it as a miracle," Cobell said. "I've never seen tribes come together and work so hard."

She has also been active in schools, teaching children how to save money and use capital and credit, "so it won't take 130 years to ask, 'Why? Where's my account statement?'"

In all her work, Cobell said, what she learned at MSU 30 years ago has been invaluable.

"What I learned at MSU was discipline," she said. "Montana State really gave me the foundation to take on larger challenges … not to be frightened to take on a first."

Her whole family planned to be at Saturday's graduation, including brother Ernie Pepion of Bozeman, an oil painter. He said people may think his sister is a serious person and a troublemaker, but they don't know she likes to have fun and is an Elvis fan.

And though she regularly flies around the country to important conferences, Cobell is still "mucking with the cows," Lukin said, on the family ranch where she and her husband raise Angus cattle.

She has invested years of her life in the lawsuit, but Cobell said she won't get a cent more than anyone else who owns trust lands.

What she will get out of it, she said, is peace of mind.

"I get to go to my grave," she said, "knowing I did something."

Gail Schontzler is at gails@gomontana.com