Fighting for native rights: Ever resilient, Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund turns 50
John Echohawk, executive director and founding member of the Native American Rights Fund, has worked in law for half a century protecting the rights of native people and tribes in court. Now 74 years old, he plans to work as long as he is in good health
NARF, a nonprofit legal firm specializing in federal Indian law, was established 50 years ago. This area of law refers to “a complex body of law composed of hundreds of Indian treaties and court decisions, and thousands of federal Indian statutes, regulations and administrative rulings,” according to NARF’s website. The organization concentrates on existing laws and treaties and takes on cases where those rights are threatened.
NARF’s main office is in Boulder, with two others in Anchorage, Alaska, and Washington. Since its founding, NARF has represented plaintiffs in major cases. Some cases take years before seeing progress.
That’s just how quickly the wheels of change turn, Echohawk said.
We’re resilient. We never give up. And that’s really the history of native people ever since 1492,” he said referring to the date Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean islands.
On July 6, a U.S. District Court’s ruling called for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Oahe easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to vacate and remove all oil flowing through the pipeline by Aug. 5, while an environmental review is conducted. The federal judge’s decision stated that the easement to Energy Transfer Partners violated national environmental laws.
The pipeline struck up protests throughout 2016 in North Dakota, led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. A portion of the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile underground pipeline runs under South Dakota’s Lake Oahe, a source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux.
NARF was legal counsel to the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association and the National Congress of American Indians. NARF filed an amicus brief on behalf of the organizations in support of the plaintiff tribes: The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Yankton Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Echohawk was the first Native American to graduate from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1970. He attended on a scholarship funded by the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, an agency that oversaw the War on Poverty programs during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.
His Federal Indian Law classes taught him about the legal protections he had as a young Pawnee man.
“This is all new information that none of us had before. And we realized that our tribal leaders didn’t really know all this, either,” Echohawk said. “We had a lot of rights that just were not being recognized or enforced.”
He said that nonprofit groups that focused on legally defending specific demographics, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, highlighted the lack of counsel for federal Indian law.
Shortly after graduating in 1970, Echohawk was asked to join a pilot program to bring legal services to Indigenous clients by the California Indian Legal Services, funded by the Ford Foundation: the Native American Rights Fund.
A year later, NARF broke off from CILS and moved to Boulder. Echohawk said Colorado is a good base for the organization, as it’s centrally located to several native nations. That same year, it established the National Indian Law Library next to the office.
NARF grew from a handful of attorneys in the 1970s to a counsel team of 18 lawyers among three offices. The organization is working on at least 50 cases annually, Echohawk said.
Echohawk said the pool of Native American attorneys and those practicing Indian law was shallow when he started his career. It has increased alongside awareness of Native American legal rights, he said. According to a report in 2015, The National Native American Bar Association “represents more than 2,500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Hawaiian Native attorneys throughout the United States.”
For one of NARF’s newest attorneys, working for the legal team has long been her dream job. Jacqueline De León, an attorney out of the Boulder office, joined three years ago.
As a child, her family said that she would make a good lawyer because she enforced order in their household. She found that calling for herself in her adulthood. Throughout law school, two clerkships and a position at a Washington firm, De León had an end goal of joining NARF, or what she referred to as a beacon of hope for Indian Country.
“I was specifically working toward this organization,” De León said. “And I’m a member of the Isleta Pueblo and somebody who cares about Native American law. I know that NARF is the top organization in the world advancing the rights of Native Americans.”
Most of her docket consists of Indigenous voting rights cases. A win for NARF in North Dakota wrapped up earlier this year.
North Dakota tightened its voter ID law in 2013. New restrictions required individuals to present identification listing their residential street address. It’s common for tribal IDs to lack a residential listing, De León said.
According to NARF, “This is due, in part, to the fact that the U.S. Postal Service does not provide residential delivery in these rural Indian communities. Thus, most tribal members use a P.O. box. If a tribal ID has an address, it is typically the P.O. box address, which does not satisfy.”
In January 2016, NARF counseled a lawsuit filed to block the voter ID law on behalf of eight Native Americans. It was on the basis that the North Dakota law disproportionately disenfranchised Native American voters and violated the Voting Rights Act and state and federal constitutions.
In 2018 NARF, Campaign Legal Center, Robins Kaplan LLP, and Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll PLLC filed a separate but related lawsuit on behalf of the Spirit Lake Tribe and six individual plaintiffs.
The North Dakota Secretary of State agreed to settle the two cases in February. The Secretary of State agreed to work with the Department of Transportation to develop and implement a program with tribal governments to distribute free nondriver photo IDs. The Spirit Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a binding agreement with the state of North Dakota in April. Once accepted, the state will consider tribal IDs valid and enforce the agreements from February. According to NARF, there are more than 7,000 residents of voting age between the two tribes.
There are more limitations that hinder Native Americans from fully exercising their franchise, De Leon said. NARF released a 175-page study in June, “Obstacles at Every Turn: Barriers to Political Participation Faced by Native American Voters.” The report uses 120 testimonies from nine public hearings between 2017 and 2018.
NARF intended to celebrate its 50th anniversary at a gala set for May 4, but the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in NARF postponing until spring 2021. NARF’s official anniversary is in September, said Echohawk.
Don Ragona, development director for NARF, has worked with the organization in different positions since the 1990s. His department oversees funds and donations to NARF.
NARF requests legal fees from its clients, meeting any budget, but will work pro bono. Its board of directors, an elected group of Native American leaders, gives guidance on which cases should be pursued. Legal resources are concentrated in five areas: Preserve tribal existence, protect tribal natural resources, promote Native American human rights, hold governments accountable to Native Americans, and to develop and educate the public on Indian law.
Ragona said NARF performs a cost analysis of considered cases. But once it takes on a case, the legal team sees it through no matter the time or cost.
“Litigation cases can be very, very expensive, and when your adversary is sometimes the federal government, it could take a long time,” he said.
He recalls NARF nearly running out of funds while working on the Cobell v. Salazar class-action lawsuit of 1996 to 2009. NARF was active from the first filing through 2006. The case was filed in federal district court in Washington to force the federal government to provide an accounting to approximately 300,000 individual Indian money account holders who had their funds held in trust by the federal government.
“We almost went broke because we took on that fight, but it was so important that we froze salaries,” Ragona said. “Attorneys didn’t take vacations for years, but that fight was so important. And we took on that role as that modern-day warrior.”
On Dec. 8, 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law a settlement of $1.5 billion to the 300,000 account holders. Another $1.9 billion was made available to pay individual Indians who want to sell their small fractionated interests in their trust lands to the federal government to be turned over to their tribes.
Financial donations are necessary to keep NARF afloat. Ragona said funding is raised through a mail program, gifts program, in-house administrative donations, foundations and support from native tribes.
Despite financial pressure of COVID-19 on the country, donations remain steady, he said. He added that a pandemic doesn’t pause the threats to Native American rights.
“It’s been wonderful in that even through this — and I’m sure in some cases a personal sacrifice — they still gave to the work that we do on behalf of Indian Country,” Ragona said.
NARF’s legal team isn’t in it for the dollars. Melody McCoy, who has worked as a staff attorney for NARF out of Boulder since 1986, could have pursued a part of law that’s more affluent. She was a part of the Cobell case that almost depleted NARF’s resources.
She comes from a family of lawyers, but her drive to complete law school didn’t arrive until she was introduced to Indian law at a clerkship as a first-year student.
After her second year of law school, she practiced for a short time on Wall Street.
“I made more money than I’d ever made in my life — this was back in the ’80s — and I hated it,” McCoy said.
She is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and calls on the spiritual guidance of her ancestors and the spiritual leadership of her tribe when waiting to argue in the courtroom. McCoy believes in the points and arguments she makes, she said.
“I could have gone into private practice out of law school, and I almost did. But then I came to NARF and I took a two-thirds reduction in salary to come here,” McCoy said. “And yet, here I am 34 years later, and I’m probably more satisfied with my work than 90% of my law school classmates who did go into private practice.”
Echohawk called the development of NARF into a well-known entity with many courtroom wins over the last 50 years “a dream come true.” But there’s still a ways to go.
Outside of legal advocacy, NARF puts resources into educating law students and professionals, elected officials and the general public on Indian law and Native American rights. Often, misunderstandings surround nation sovereignty and treaty rights, he said.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on July 9 reaffirmed the jurisdictional boundaries of tribal nations in Oklahoma that are guaranteed by U.S. treaties from the 1800s. The 5-4 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma decided that much of eastern Oklahoma is in Indian Territory. Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Cherokee reservations sit within the eastern part of the state.
NARF filed an amicus curiae representing the National Congress of American Indians — the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country — in a similar case, Sharp v. Murphy. The case centered around Patrick Murphy, a Creek citizen who was prosecuted by the state for a murder that occurred on Creek Reservation and sentenced to death row. For crimes within Indian Territory, defendants must be tried within the reservation boundaries where it took place or in a federal court. Sharp V. Murphy was heard during the 2018-2019 session but came to a halt after Justice Neil Gorsuch — a former Boulder County resident and judge in Colorado — recused himself, putting the decision in a deadlock.
The recent landmark win followed the Murphy case. Jimcy McGirt, a Seminole Nation citizen, was prosecuted by the state of Oklahoma for sex crimes against a minor within Creek Nation boundaries. The Supreme Court decision solidified that reservations within Oklahoma were never disestablished.
“We have substantial legal rights in this country under this legal system, and they were just going unenforced,” Echohawk said. “We’re gonna be able to enforce those and help educate people about our continued existence in this country. It’s a country made up of three governments: federal government, state and tribal governments. That’s what the USA is.”
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