Participants at the UN’s first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, where NARF represented the National Congress of American Indians.

NARF’s victories correct historic injustices

By Tanya Ishikawa

Just in time for November’s elections, NARF won a case against the state of Alaska to provide these Yup’ik-speaking villagers with election information they could read. English speakers had been receiving a 100-page official election pamphlet before every election since 1975, while Yup’ik-speaking voters received only the date and time of the election and a notice that language assistance was available at the polls.  (Photo courtesy NARF)
Just in time for November’s elections, NARF won a case against the state of Alaska to provide these Yup’ik-speaking villagers with election information they could read. English speakers had been receiving a 100-page official election pamphlet before every election since 1975, while Yup’ik-speaking voters received only the date and time of the election and a notice that language assistance was available at the polls.
(Photo courtesy NARF)

2015 marks the 45th anniversary of the Boulder office of the Native American Rights Fund—the power center that has waged historic court battles to recognize and protect the tribal peoples of the United States. The nonprofit, NARF for short, fights modern-day battles for the human and treaty rights of Native Americans. Its legal work through the judicial and legislative systems aims at preserving tribal existence, protecting tribal natural resources, promoting Native American human rights, holding government accountable to Native Americans, and developing Indian Law, a body of law consisting of treaties, court decisions, federal statutes, regulations and administrative rulings.

NARF’s attorneys represent and cooperate with hundreds of tribal entities and individuals to win legal challenges around the nation. Among the best-known victories of NARF and its allies was the passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act in 1990. The act provides protection for Native American burial sites, and helps Native Americans regain possession of the remains of their ancestors from museums and scientific institutions.

The Fund’s attorneys have also been victorious in proving and protecting tribal treaty rights to fishing activities on rivers across the northwest and Alaska, especially over the past 10 years. In a landmark case in 2006, for example, NARF successfully defended the rights of native subsistence users to fish king salmon in Alaska’s Copper River.

The list of NARF’s accomplishments across Indian Country is long—from lawsuits protecting tribes’ rights to operate casinos that benefit them, to high-profile cases fought for control of their own lands and mineral resources, and preservation of their freedom to use and wear eagle feathers in traditional ways. And while history has seldom been kind to native peoples, NARF’s steadfast insistence that state and federal governments uphold historic agreements has been surprisingly successful.

‘They Don’t Think Federal Laws Apply to Them’

John Echohawk,  executive director, Native American Rights Fund
Native youth at NARF’S Sacred Places Prayer Morning, held in Boulder last June.

The United States is home to approximately 2 million members of 566 tribes. “Tribes are sovereign governments with treaties with the federal government. Still today, most people don’t know that, including people in Washington, D.C., the administration, courts and Congress,” NARF executive director John Echohawk says. “All tribal leaders know part of their job is constantly having to educate people about who we are. We are not mascots; we are sovereign nations.”

“Generally speaking,” Echohawk explains, “we have some good laws that protect native rights across the country. But historically we have not had the legal representation that we needed, because it costs money for lawyers and our people are the poorest of the poor. Our organization was created to make lawyers available to tribes across the country. In the 1970s,” he continues, “most [state] governments were ignoring Indian laws and forcing us to assimilate. Our court cases changed everything and put tribes back on the map. States have gradually come around, though they couldn’t believe at first that our people were not under their jurisdictions but under tribal and federal laws.”

Operating on an annual budget of roughly $11 million, NARF is supported financially from a variety of sources, including federal grants and individual donations. In recent years, gifts from tribes have become the single largest source of funding.

Participants at the UN’s first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, where NARF represented the National Congress of American Indians.
Participants at the UN’s first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, where NARF represented the National Congress of American Indians.

In 2014, NARF was involved in approximately 58 ongoing cases and projects. When asked to pick out its most significant ones, Echohawk replies, “All our cases are important. It’s hard to single any out.” However, Alaska has proven to be an endless source of legal confrontation for NARF, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of its Alaska office in October.

“The Alaska government fights against providing native rights at every turn,” Echohawk says. “They have had the worst tribal/state relationship in history. They don’t think federal laws apply to them.”

Most recently, the Alaska state government was found in violation of the Voting Rights Act when a federal court ruled in favor of NARF and its plaintiffs this past September. Although Alaska has been required since 1975 to provide election materials in the native languages of seven regions, it translated only the most basic information. The September ruling confirmed that election officials must provide translations of all voting materials in Yup’ik and another native language, Gwich’in. NARF won a similar ruling in Alaska two years ago when it settled a lawsuit filed by Yup’ik voters from another region in the state, yet it took another lawsuit to confirm the same federally mandated voting rights for natives of other areas.

Climate Havoc in Alaska

NARF’s work has helped preserve Native salmon-fishing rights. Above: Subsistence fishing on the Columbia River in Washington, near the Bridge of the Gods.
NARF’s work has helped preserve Native salmon-fishing rights. Above: Subsistence fishing on the Columbia River in Washington, near the Bridge of the Gods.

The Fund’s lawyers will also be working for the survival of Alaskan natives by representing the National Congress of American Indians on climate-change matters. The effects of climate change are disproportionately negative for indigenous peoples around the world, due to geographic and economic conditions. In Alaska alone, as many as 184 native villages are threatened, according to NARF’s 2013 annual report.

NARF spokesman Ray Ramirez reels off a shocking list of problems, quoting from a report by NARF attorneys: “Global warming is wreaking havoc in Alaska. In 2006, during the Alaska Forum on the Environment, Alaska native participants described increased forest fires, more dangerous hunting, fishing and traveling conditions, visible changes in animals and plants, infrastructure damage from melting permafrost and coastal erosion, fiercer winter storms, and pervasive unpredictability. Virtually every aspect of traditional Alaska Native life is impacted.

“As noted in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment of 2004,” the report continues, “indigenous peoples are reporting that sea ice is declining, and its quality and timing are changing, with important negative repercussions for marine hunters. Others are reporting that salmon are diseased and cannot be dried for winter food. There is widespread concern about caribou habitat diminishing as larger vegetation moves northward. Because of these and other dramatic changes, traditional knowledge is jeopardized, as are cultural structures and the nutritional needs of Alaska’s indigenous peoples.”

Boarding-School Scars

Indigenous-Rights-John-Echohawk
John Echohawk, executive director, Native American Rights Fund

NARF was instrumental in the 2012 formation of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which is tasked with formulating a strategy and process for pursuing healing from the impacts of the American boarding school system on Native communities and families. This educational system, which operated from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century, separated children from their families for months or years at a time, subjected them to emotional and physical abuse, and prohibited them from speaking their own languages, practicing their traditions, and dressing or grooming according to their cultural heritage.

Echohawk is especially hopeful to see results from NARF’s participation as a representative of the National Congress of American Indians in the United Nations’ first World Conference of Indigenous Peoples, held this past September at the U.N. campus in New York. The conference was attended by an estimated 1,000 indigenous leaders from all over the world, representing about 370 million people. They are designing the steps for implementation of the 2007 U.N.-approved Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a bill of rights outlining basic freedoms and protections of native peoples.

“We pressed for issues we wanted included in the outcome document, and we were successful,” Echohawk says. “Moving forward, the U.N. is going to explore recognition of indigenous governments as nation states with voting status and a role in U.N. activities. We are also going to work as an international coalition to address the dire straits that indigenous women and children are in due to poverty, abuse and neglect, and seek protection and native control of sacred sites that are central to our religious beliefs.”

As the projects and clients get more diverse each year, Echohawk continues to find satisfaction in just “being able to help Native American people protect their rights and continue to live as native people.”

Some of NARF’s Historic Wins
  • Federal court ruling to uphold the federal Voting Rights Act in Alaska, requiring election materials in the native languages of seven regions, 2014
  • Participation in the United Nations’ first World Conference of Indigenous Peoples, 2014
  • Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with new provisions allowing tribal governments to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault, 2013
  • Formation of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, 2012
  • Participation in the creation of the U.N.-approved Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007
  • Passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, 1990
  • Federal and state court victories upholding the Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling that federally recognized tribes could operate casinos
  • Passage of Indian Child Welfare laws in several states
  • Federal and state court victories protecting Native American rights to wear and use eagle feathers, and for Native American Church members to use peyote
  • Federal and state court victories protecting tribal water and land rights for several tribes across the U.S.
  • Federal and state court victories protecting hunting and fishing rights for several tribes across the U.S.

Tanya Ishikawa contributes regularly to Boulder Magazine, and writes and edits for other magazines, newspapers and public relations projects. She spent seven years guiding cultural tours to Native American reservations across the western U.S.

[quote]The Native American Rights Fund is headquartered in Boulder, along with the National Indian Law Library, and has offices in Washington, D.C., and Alaska. The organization sends out regular updates on its legal activities, and organizes several events a year featuring native culture and films. For more information, go to www.narf.org. [/quote]