By John Echohawk
Executive Director, Native American Rights Fund
This year, we at the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) are celebrating our 50th anniversary of fighting for the rights of Native people, tribes, and organizations. NARF is the oldest and largest nonprofit legal organization asserting and defending the rights of Indian tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide. We hold governments accountable to Native people.
Fifty years on, we are committed to protecting Native American rights, resources, and lifeways through litigation, legal advocacy and expertise. For too long, people have turned a blind eye as state and federal policies have ignored the existence of tribes or even sought to end tribal existence. It is time for this willful ignorance and neglect to stop. Although progress has been made in the past 50 years, there is plenty left to be done.
We as a nation can do better. It is time for a change.
From day one, an essential part of our work has been simply to raise awareness that America’s Native peoples are still here. We are still here and we continue to stand strong, despite historic and ongoing policies that seek to dehumanize and erase us.
Today, there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, each with its own culture, language, ceremonies, and lifeways. Reflecting that diversity, NARF has represented more than 275 tribes, in nearly every state, in hundreds of cases which have touched on almost every issue of Indian law. This includes areas of law like tribal restoration and recognition, land and water claims, hunting and fishing rights, the protection of Indian religious freedom, voting rights, environmental protections, and many others.
We have come a long way. Fifty years ago, the very existence of tribes in America was at stake. We didn’t know what would happen. No one knew if the decades-long federal policy of terminating Indian tribes would prevail. We didn’t know if tribes would survive.
Using the promises held in American law, tribes have been able to secure themselves as viable sovereign governments. Because of the work of the last 50 years, today we see a functioning—if imperfect—system of federal, tribal, and state governments. Since that shaky beginning 50 years ago, the growth of tribal governments and Indian law has been phenomenal.
Tribes continue to assert and defend their sovereignty—their right to manage their own people and affairs. With that sovereignty in hand, tribes are able to serve their communities and grow economically while protecting their lands, cultures, lifeways, and people.
However, even with the law on our side, Native peoples continue to come under attack. NARF’s recently released report, “Obstacles at Every Turn,” defines the obstacles faced by Native voters and highlights their discriminatory and unequal access to political participation. Tribes have worked tirelessly—often for decades—to protect our sacred homelands like those found at Bears Ears National Monument (UT) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (AK). Those unique and sacred treasures are now being threatened by unfettered, unnecessary corporate development.
Tribal efforts to protect Native citizens during this pandemic are questioned and undermined by the same state governments that should be supporting public health efforts. Native mascots that cartoonize Native peoples and dehumanize our people and history are falling out of favor, but they still fill high schools and sports stadiums nationwide.
We continue to see ongoing violations of our human rights, encroachments on our lands, threats to our representation, and the promotion of corporate interests over Native nations. So the fight continues, and NARF remains dedicated to helping tribes lay the foundations of law and policy needed so that Indian people can live according to their traditions.
We envision a world where—across the board—Native Americans not just survive, but thrive with their rights, resources, and lifeways intact and protected, promises made to them upheld, and tribal sovereign rights respected. We will continue to fight in the courtroom and in the state and federal legislative bodies for the rights of Native people. We will continue to protect Native children and strengthen tribal education. We will continue to work to protect our natural resources and lifeways. We will continue to raise awareness about our nation’s continuing legacy of discrimination and inequity.
We will continue the fight, but now is the time for change. We invite you to be a part of this change. Join our communities on Facebook (@NativeAmericanRightsFund) and Twitter (@NDNrights) and help raise awareness about Native issues and efforts. Watch for legislative actions in your community that protect Native people, land, and sovereignty—and support them. Listen for the tribal voices in your community and region and lift them up.
We are still here.
As NARF looks ahead to the next 50 years of legal advocacy, we hope that you will join our efforts to ensure that all of our children reap the benefits of a country rich in diversity and acceptance.
John E. Echohawk (Pawnee) is the Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund, which is headquartered in Boulder. He was the first graduate of the University of New Mexico’s special program to train Indian lawyers and was a founding member of the American Indian Law Students Association while in law school. John has been with NARF since its inception in 1970, having served continuously as Executive Director since 1977. He has been recognized as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal and has received numerous service awards and other recognition for his leadership in the Indian law field.