The University of Montana officially opened the Eloise Cobell Land and Culture Institute on Friday afternoon. The institute is located within the Payne Family Native American Center, just off the UM oval. 

In 1985, Blackfeet tribal leader Eloise Cobell brought a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, claiming that the Interior Department obtained royalties worth billions of dollars that legally belonged to Indian tribal members across the country. In 2010, the lawsuit was settled for $3.4 billion, however Cobell died before the first payments could be distributed to tribal members.

Cobell's elder sister, Julene Pepkin Kennerly was at Friday's ceremony, along with several other direct and extended family members.

"We are very honored and happy for her, that they would be honoring her, she certainly deserved it," Kennerly said. "She's done so much for Indian country, she was an advocate for social justice for all Native Americans, not just for the Blackfeet. To us, she's our warrior."

Kennerly said Cobell's tenacity came from a strong family background.

"She persevered all the time, and that came from our parents," she said. "We had parents that more or less told us to never give up, and if we see something wrong to try to correct it. She did, she did, she went all the way. She did it."

At the ceremony, Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian also gave credit to Terry Payne and his family, for their support of Native American issues, and for their efforts in seeing the Native American Center to its completion.

"The Payne family has been incredibly generous, in particular for this building, and for completing this facility," Christian said. "In addition to honoring Eloise Cobell, it speaks volumes for both the Payne family and the Cobells, it's wonderful."

Christian said the Payne Family Native American Center fulfills a vital role for Native students.

"The whole point is to give students in need a place where they can come, get guidance, where they can feel at home, and it clearly has done that," Christian said.

The institute provides flexible classroom designs, advanced distance-learning platforms, and a round room, which can be used for both traditional storytelling and astronomical teaching. The institute occupies the entire garden level of the Native American Center.