NARF Celebrates 50th Anniversary By Helping Indian Country In Legal Matters

the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) celebrates its 50th anniversary with a gala in Denver tonight. NARF, the leading legal defense organization for Native Americans across Indian Country, was actually established in 1970 but is celebrating its 50th anniversary two years late as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have prevented in-person gatherings two years ago.

The gala, Honoring our past, protecting our future is a sold-out event that will attract 300 guests, including tribal leaders, jurists and other dignitaries. The gala will feature live entertainment and live and silent auctions, while reviewing NARF’s history, the organization’s work, and accomplishments to protect tribal sovereignty and the rights of Native Americans who have monitoring.

As part of the celebration, NARF has created an 80-page anniversary book that reflects what they’ve done, where they’ve been and how far they’ve come.

The book begins with a brief letter from John E. Echohawk (Pawnee), Executive Director and Co-Founder of NARF. In his letter, he talks about the progress NARF has made over the past 50 years:

“The social and economic conditions of Native Americans have improved dramatically over the past 50 years. Our legal representation and advocacy on behalf of Indian tribes, organizations, and individuals during this time contributed to this success and changed the history of Native Americans and the history of the United States.

He goes on to thank those who made this possible, saying, “The Native American Rights Fund’s 50 years of successful perseverance would not have been possible without the excellent staff, the wise leadership of the Board of Directors, the courageous clients Native Americans and the generous donors to our non-profit cause.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is the proud presenting sponsor of the gala; the Yocha Dehe Wintun nation is the sponsor of the stage. Although tickets for the gala have since sold out, you can still support NARF by donating here.

On Friday, Native News Online publisher and editor Levi Rickert interviewed John Echohawk. During the Q&A session, Echohawk talked about the specifics of NARF and what the organization specifically does.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell us about NARF.

This is to provide legal representation to our tribes and Indigenous organizations and individuals. Especially when they can’t afford lawyers. We are a non-profit, fundraising organization to provide this legal representation and have been doing so for 52 years. But despite everything, we still have a great need for our legal representation and the requests for assistance do not stop flowing. We manage as many as we can, but we can’t help everyone.

This is unfortunately the reality faced by many organizations aiming to serve Indian Country. However, NARF has come a long way since the conception of the organization.

We started in 1970. That was the same year that federal government policy changed. Under President Nixon, we repudiated the policy of termination and assimilation that had been in effect for many years and supported the new era of self-determination where tribes and their treaties were to be honored, and we were able to live as we wanted it. We badly needed legal representation to implement this, so we started with grants from the Ford Foundation. They funded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, so they eventually started funding a Native American Legal Defense Fund – us – and we immediately got involved in a number of important issues. We caught the attention of other funding sources and grew quite quickly.

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How many lawyers do you currently have?

The Native American Rights Fund now has 23 attorneys on staff, 15 of whom work at NARF’s central office in Colorado. They also have three attorneys in Washington DC and five in Anchorage, Alaska. He explains that their funding comes from wherever they can.

What do you consider to be NARF’s greatest accomplishments in its history?

I always think back to when we started. There was a real need for representation for tribes in western Washington who claimed treaty fishing rights. Fishing is what these tribes are up there for. Washington State was not respecting treaties and requiring them to obtain fishing licenses and fish according to state law. The 1855 treaties stipulated that the tribes would share the resource in common with the citizens of the state. It meant 50-50 and the tribes fishing under tribal law. And that’s what the courts have ruled beginning with a judge’s vote on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and then ultimately on the United States Supreme Court. So a great treaty victory showing once again that these treaties are the supreme law of the land. These are not ancient history.

We also got involved in representing the Menominee nation that disappeared in the 1950s. Of course Congress said it was going to be good for them, and of course it was really disastrous for them. So we helped them explain that Congress and Congress passed a law restoring their tribal status and other tribes that had been suppressed and then restored as well.

Tell us about NARF’s involvement in Native American suffrage.

The NARF is no stranger to defending voting rights. In 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case that gutted many voter safety nets in the National Suffrage Act, NARF took up the fight again by suing states for discriminatory electoral laws.

We have all kinds of fights going on. Now, several cases deal with redistricting because some of these states are, again, passing discriminatory laws that gerrymander things. In such a way that it dilutes the native vote and makes it difficult for our people to rally anyone who supports the Indians. So we put all of these issues together and put them in a Native American suffrage bill, and we tried to get it through Congress as part of this campaign, nationwide, for the suffrage law.

Would it be helpful for our readers to write to members of Congress urging them to support this legislation?

Yeah, that would help. It’s just an ongoing problem, and of course, congressional politics. It’s a bit of a stalemate between Democrats and Republicans. So it’s hard to get anything through, but we didn’t give up. The civil rights community has not given up, so we continue to call on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, including the Native American Voting Rights Act, and we just hope for the best. We never give up.

In July 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the McGirt case that much of eastern Oklahoma never left tribal control. The State of Oklahoma pushed back on this decision. What do you think of the battle and where are we on McGirt?

The state of Oklahoma keeps asking the United States Supreme Court to overturn their decision in the McGirt case, but they’re not really moving on that. There is one outstanding issue right now that stems from this McGirt case. The argument of the State of Oklahoma, then we start the exclusive jurisdiction over these grants involving Indians, with the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government and the tribal governments that there is concurrent jurisdiction in the state. So while the federal government and the tribes have jurisdiction, the states have concurrent jurisdiction. This is their current argument.

The Supreme Court of the United States hears this term, so we will see how it goes. I don’t think Oklahoma State is going to win, but they keep trying everything to get around McGirt.

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About the Author

Neely Bardwell
Author: Neely BardwellE-mail: This email address is protected from spam. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Neely Bardwell (descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian), who started as an intern at Native News Online in the summer of 2021, is a freelance writer. Bardwell is a student at Michigan State University where she majored in politics and minored in Native American studies.

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