The Boulder nonprofit Native American Rights Fund (NARF) was about to hit a major milestone when COVID-19 struck. “It was going to be a celebration of fifty years of legal advocacy, so we were excited,” says Dallin Maybee, assistant director of development at NARF. “It would have been a little bit of a fundraising tool with our silent auction and donated art, but obviously the pandemic changed that.”
The 50th-anniversary gala has been rescheduled for next year, but the celebratory spirit is still going strong at NARF. They’ve taken to social media to honor great accomplishments of the organization over the last five decades by sharing stories ranging from tribal recognition cases to water rights disputes. Their work is in federal Indian law, a branch that navigates the nuances of tribal sovereignty to help recognize and protect the rights of Native Americans. In many groundbreaking cases, the resulting verdicts set precedents that affect tribal communities all over the country.
Maybee says one of the greatest obstacles to their work is simple ignorance. “There are a lot of stereotypes that are perpetuated, a lot of misconceptions about our relationship with the United States, even a lack of understanding about the Constitution and the power of treaties. To educate people is one of our missions. There are five hundred and seventy-four federally recognized tribes, and each one has their own language, their own culture and how they want to live according to their traditions, and we simply defend and assert those rights.”
And they’ve fought some of those battles for decades. NARF has been engaged in certain water litigation cases that are still going after more than 30 years. While many people have started paying attention to the injustices perpetrated against Native American populations by the U.S. government, few understand what it means for tribes to be sovereign. To self-govern under the same federal umbrella as states, but to be regarded as so much less.
“I’m glad for the steps that we’ve made, but it’s a little daunting to know how much further we still have to go,” Maybee admits. “Hopefully the next fifty years will continue on this trend of success and progress, and I hope we pick up a lot of friends and allies along the way.”