(Producer, Director, and Writer) graduated Cum Laude from Emerson College in Boston, MA. Shortly after, she formed Turning Point Productions, a company that specialized in promotional videos for the non-profit sector. In 2003, after moving to Southern California, she created Fire in the Belly Productions, Inc. After discovering the story of the broken trust, Melinda spent two years researching and writing the film treatment. She was then granted exclusive access to Elouise Cobell and travelled the country with the lead plaintiff for many years. Janko interviewed Senators, Congressmen, the Federal Judge, high-level officials of the Department of the Interior, Native American leaders and many Indian Trust beneficiaries. She was interviewed by the BBC Radio, NPR, and Indian Country Today and wrote a special feature article honoring Cobell for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Magazine.
FILMMAKER STATEMENTS ON THE FILM
“It is my honor to tell the triumphant story of a courageous modern day hero, Elouise Cobell. When we started filming in 2004 I could not have imagined that the Cobell lawsuit would languish in the courts for 15 years. Even Elouise believed the lawsuit would be a “slam dunk” and settled in three years. I watched as she relentlessly fought against a giant superpower. “The stars are aligned for justice for Indian people,” she told me over and over again. Her battle was long and hard but she was determined to fight it until she had won! And that is exactly what she did in 2011 when President Obama, Congress and the federal district court approved the $3.4 billion Cobell Settlement for 300,000 Native Americans. It is the largest award in U.S. history! “
“I am forever blessed because Elouise shared her story with me, and it is my hope that through the film, 100 YEARS: ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE, her legacy will live on and inspire other people around the world who are also fighting “the good fight.” It is also my hope that Elouise Pepion Cobell posthumously receives the Congressional Gold Medal for which she so deserves.
How did this film come about? In 2002 I was looking for a story to tell. I had just moved to southern California and formed Fire in the Belly Productions with a goal of “making films that make a difference.” I found a small article in Mother Jones Magazine about a broken trust and Elouise Cobell’s fight for justice. I was amazed that this story was not front-page news and I was shocked by the injustice perpetrated by the United States Government.
During my research and investigation, I was shocked to find that most Americans do 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. Among them, Mad Dog Kennerly, a Blackfeet Indian who makes beaded necklaces to supplement his $89 monthly oil payments; Mary Johnson, an 93-year old Navajo woman who has never been able to afford running water despite the five oil 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. These are the invisible Indians 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 as Judge Royce C. Lamberth said, "Justice delayed, is justice denied."
How long did it take to make the film? From concept to completion?
14 years from concept to completion. I spent about one year researching the story. It is the largest class action lawsuit ever filed against the U.S. Government and I was a bit overwhelmed. In addition, I had never set foot on an Indian reservation, I didn’t know any Native Americans and I certainly didn’t know any officials at the Department of the Interior. But this story got under my skin.
In 2003 I had my first pre-interview with John Echohawk, the Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund. NARF had filed the lawsuit in 1996 with Elouise Cobell and I couldn’t get Elouise to talk to me so I started my journey with John. He saw my passion for the story and spent the entire day at the NARF headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, talking to me about the lawsuit and the people who were suffering at the hands of the government. He promised to connect me to Keith Harper, one of the lead attorney’s on
the case and Tex Hall, President of the National Congress of American Indians, and a friend of the court.
In 2004 we started production at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Production continued until 2008 in eight states, D.C., and on many Indian Reservations.
In 2009, the Obama Administration began negotiations with Elouise Cobell and her attorneys and she was placed under a “gag order” and could not talk to anyone about the lawsuit.
Why did you make this film?
I made this film because I was outraged by the injustice by the U.S. Government and I wanted to bring this little known story to the world. I wondered if the U.S. Government could abuse the rights of one minority of people how safe are the rest of us? l also wanted to honor the life work of Elouise Cobell. I could not have imagined that she would pass away just four months after the approval of the $ 3.4 billion Cobell Settlement.
Share a story about filming.
We spent five days in production on the Blackfeet Reservation with Elouise. We followed her to her office, her ranch, the Heart Butte Pow Wow, the Native American Bank she started and to Ghost Ridge, the sacred burial site where 500 Blackfeet Indians starved to death. She told us that the Blackfeet Indians were living on the reservation and at the mercy of the Indian Agent. Hunting tools had been taken away from them and they had no means to survive except for the food rations distributed by the Agent. It was a harsh winter in 1884 and their food rations had been black-marketed. One by one; women, children and men died from starvation, and their bodies were thrown in a mass grave. Elouise grew up with the story and Ghost Ridge was a very special place that she visited often when she needed courage and strength to fight the most powerful government in the world. It was for them that she fought!
On the day we filmed Elouise on Ghost Ridge, I could feel the sadness as we spoke about the events that took place in 1884. The wind blew strong and there was an eeriness unlike anywhere I have ever been. After she finished, Elouise got in her car on Ghost Ridge and drove off. Just as she did, a rainbow appeared. You will see the rainbow in the film.
Did the film change from your original idea for the film as you were filming or in edit or post?
When we began production of 100 YEARS: ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE it was my desire to shed light on this little known story in hopes that the film would enlighten Americans on this grave injustice and perhaps bring about change. After several years of filming, we had depleted our funding and I was looking for more when, in late 2008, I heard
that Senator Barack Obama had made a campaign promise to Native Americans to resolve the Cobell lawsuit if he was elected. Shortly after, he was elected President and in June of 2009 negotiations began between Elouise Cobell and her attorneys. She was under a “gag order” and could not talk about the case.
I had always believed in Elouise Cobell’s fighting spirit and when she told me over and over, “The stars are aligned for Indian people to get justice.” I never doubted her. In December of 2009, she triumphed when President Obama announced the $3.4 billion Cobell Settlement. It is the largest award against the Federal Government in U.S. history. The ending I had hoped and dreamed of finally came to pass! What Elouise Cobell, a petite Warrior woman from the Blackfeet Tribe accomplished was historic!
Sadly on October 16, 2011, the story changed again when Elouise, who fought 30 years for justice, died of cancer just four months after the final approval of the Cobell Settlement. As her lead attorney said at her funeral, “She saw the finish line but she was never able to cross it!” She never received a penny from the Settlement that bore her name.
On choosing this story: When I first decided to shoot a feature length documentary about the Cobell lawsuit I was faced with many doubts; I was a non-Native and had never set foot on an Indian reservation. I did not know any Native Americans and certainly not any officials from the Department of the Interior. I felt like Elouise after she filed the largest class lawsuit in the history of America; I was frightened, but I knew I had to do this.
Determined to bring this story to the world, I set out on a two-year journey of relationship building. I traveled all over the country attending Native conferences and meeting government officials. I sought the advice of Native leaders, and Elouise Cobell, and I heard the many stories of Indian Trust beneficiaries who were the victims of the broken trust. What I saw was heart breaking; Indians who were land rich with oil wells pumping 24/7 were living dirt poor without running water and electricity. They trusted me to tell their story, for which I am very grateful. No matter where I went, they welcomed me into their homes and their lives.
What were the challenges in making the film?
There were many challenges making 100 YEARS: ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE. The first was that I was a non-Native and I had to build relationships of trust with the Native American community. In addition, many people had reached out to Elouise Cobell for her
story. But for two years, while I was waiting for Elouise to make a decision, I traveled all across the country attending Native American conferences and meeting Native leaders and government officials. I met John Echohawk, the Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund, who filed the lawsuit with Elouise. He became my mentor in Indian Country. When I finally convinced Elouise to let me tell her story she agreed. Several years later she told a group of college students from Moorpark College, “Every time I turned around, there was Melinda, in fact Melinda reminds me a lot of myself, she doesn’t take No for an answer!”
Another challenge was getting the government officials to agree to be interviewed. The two years I spent attending Native conferences were very valuable because I also met the women who managed the men in the Department of the Interior. I became friends with them, but they told me their bosses would not talk to me because they knew what side I was on. I told them that if they didn’t talk to me I would put that in the film. They agreed to talk, but only if I followed strict protocol. We then went through an exchange of emails of questions I wanted to ask. They chose which ones I could and couldn’t. That was how I got my foot in the door at the Department of the Interior.
After two years of researching and writing this story, I knew I wanted the best of the best with regards to production quality so I approached Panavision and was lucky enough to secure a grant for all principal photography. However, once I realized that many Native people do not like to have their picture taken I decided to honor their wishes and use a smaller digital video camera that was not as obtrusive.
What were the successes that you had in making this film?
The greatest success I had in making this film was the relationships of trust I built with Elouise Cobell, Native Americans and Judge Lamberth.
Every time I would film a Native family they would thank me for telling their story and many, including Elouise, gave me gifts from their own personal possessions. After we finished shooting five days with Elouise on the Blackfeet Reservation, however, she told me it was harder than fighting the lawsuit!
In addition, I considered it a huge success to interview the Honorable Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who presided over the Cobell case for ten years. At the time we spoke he was awaiting the decision from the D.C. District Appellate Court regarding his removal on the charges of “bias towards the Indians.” He was limited in talking to me about the case and shortly after we filmed he was removed. To this day, we remain friends.
What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
I want the audience to know about the U.S. Government’s gross mismanagement of Indian lands that has occurred for over 100 years. I also want them to know who Elouise Cobell
is and how hard she fought for justice. Since her death, Elouise has been nominated for a Congressional Gold Medal and the Governor of Montana has declared November 5, Elouise Cobell Day in Montana. I hope that in the future her name will go down in the history books next to other great women like Rosa Parks and Harriet Beecher Stowe. I also want other indigenous groups around the world to know that there is hope for them too. Elouise often spoke to those groups. I also want the audience to recognize the environmental destruction of the Indian lands.
Talk about something with the filming process- editing; score; cinematography- if you used a new technology that had impact on your film.
When I was deciding on the music for the film, I was asked why I didn’t choose to use Native American music. The reason was simple, as Elouise said in the film,
“This is not a story about Native Americans, this is a story about mismanagement of money belonging to people.” I felt that I needed this film to appeal to the mainstream audience. As I began interviewing composers I looked for someone who not only had the credentials but also had the passion for this story. My producer introduced me to Nicholas Pike, an Emmy award-winning composer. He was so interested in the film that he wrote a tribute song before I even hired him. I was very touched by the song, “On Ghost Ridge,” and asked him to score the film.
I had always envisioned bringing on a top singer and when Nick approached Universal Music Group they suggested a break out artist named Yuna. She had just co-written “Crush” with Usher and the music video on You Tube already has 12 million hits. I loved her voice and we recorded Yuna at Nick’s recording studio in August, 2016. Her voice was perfect for the song! Nick is now campaigning for a Best Song consideration from the Academy.
Anything else you want to add about the making of the film and it’s importance.
In the past several years, I have seen a phenomenal interest in 100 YEARS: ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE by filmmaking professionals in Hollywood. As was the case with Nicholas Pike, the film also attracted veteran and Academy nominated Producer, Michele Ohayon to join me as my Producer, three years ago. In addition, veteran Executive Producer Alan Blomquist, known for his work on Walk the Line, Chocolat, and The Cider House Rules, joined me as my Executive Producer and Sound Mixer, John Ross, known for his work on Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Joy joined to mix the sound for 100 YEARS: ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE. Many were working for greatly reduced rates. I believe it is the spirit of Elouise Cobell that has brought so many talented people to the film.
Timeline of the settlement:
For 30 years, Elouise Cobell fought for justice for 300,000 Native American beneficiaries of the Indian Trust Fund. In 2009, President Obama announced the $3.4 billion Cobell
Settlement. In 2010, Congress approved the Settlement and in June of 2011 the District Court of D.C. gave it the final approval.
The first settlement checks were mailed to 300,000 Indian beneficiaries in 2012 and the final checks were mailed in 2014. In addition, a $60 million Cobell Scholarship was established. To date, the Obama Administration continues to buy back the land from interested landowners who are paid fair market price for their land. The land is then returned to the Tribes to manage. With the finalization of the Cobell Settlement nearing completion, now is the perfect time to tell the story of 100 YEARS: ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE.