– The Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. – Elouise Cobell took personally the death of each American Indian who never saw a dime in the U.S. government’s $3.4 billion settlement in a long battle over mismanaged land royalties, viewing each passing as another person who would never know justice.

Now she is among those who won’t witness the final outcome after dedicating more than 15 years of her life to seeing through the largest government class-action settlement in U.S. history.

Cobell died Sunday at a Great Falls hospital of complications from cancer at age 65.

The Blackfeet woman from Browning, Mont., was the driving force that guided the lawsuit through seemingly endless court proceedings and political bickering on Capitol Hill.

Even though she was successful at overcoming those obstacles — a judge approved the $3.4 billion settlement earlier this year — the deal faces still another legal hurdle.

Former Senate Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said there would be no settlement without Cobell and her sheer force of will.

“It’s a cruel irony that the woman who led the charge here all of those years, does not live know to see the benefits,” Dorgan said.

“Despite that, I know she had to feel a great sense of accomplishment with what she did.”

Cobell, a great-granddaughter of the famous leader Mountain Chief, grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation. Her Indian name was Yellow Bird Woman.

Among her many notable accomplishments, Cobell served as the Blackfeet Nation’s treasurer for 13 years and in 1987 helped found the first U.S. bank owned by a tribe, now the Native American Bank.

But she is best known as the lead plaintiff in the trust case that spanned three presidential administrations.

Cobell said she had heard stories since she was a child of how the government shortchanged Native Americans with accounts for royalties from their land that was leased for resource development or farming.

She became outraged when she actually started digging into how much money the government had squandered that belonged to Blackfeet people who were living in dire poverty.

She realized the amount mismanaged since the 1880s could be hundreds of billions of dollars.

She said she tried for years working with two U.S. government administrations to resolve the dispute in the early 1990s, then decided to sue with four other Native Americans as plaintiffs when no progress was made.

The government dug in.

Over the next 14 years, there were more than 3,600 court filings, 220 days of trial, 80 published court decisions and 10 appeals until the 2009 breakthrough.

Congress approved the deal and President Barack Obama signed it in December 2010, a year after it was first proposed. U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan approved the settlement in June, calling Cobell a hero who has “accomplished more for individual Native Americans that any other individual I can think of in recent history.”

Just a few weeks before those words, Cobell discovered she had cancer. She traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for surgery.

Cobell grew sicker, dashing her hopes to put the lawsuit behind her and work full time teaching young Indian adults how to manage their money and assets.

She said she wanted to prepare the next generation in hope they would continue her work.