Determined Law Resource Center continues to fight for justice

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HELENA, Mont. - Steady perseverance might best describe the work of the Indian Law Resource Center.

Since 1978, the nonprofit advocacy group has been attacking injustice and pushing new standards for the treatment of indigenous peoples around the globe. Along the way, the Helena-based organization has gained an international reputation for its skillful navigation through ever-shifting diplomatic shoals, bulldog tenacity, and unwavering insistence that when it comes to human rights, the status quo is not good enough.

"I don't think the game is over," says Robert "Tim" Coulter, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the center's co-founder and current executive director. "The way governments function toward Indians has to be fundamentally changed."

Describing all the center's projects and accomplishments is no small task. The group's seven staff attorneys and other cooperating counsel are involved in a wide array of high-profile cases across the United States, Canada, and in Central and South America. Their imprints can be found at the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS) and throughout the international judiciary. Wherever there is injustice and Native peoples and their lands and cultures are at risk, the center strives to be there to provide legal support.

While some tribes and tribal organizations voluntarily contribute money to the center, all of its work is done for free. This commitment to pro bono representation, along with the fact the group accepts no funding from any non-tribal government, means that fundraising pressures can be daunting. The center's current annual budget runs about $1.3 million, with the bulk of its funds coming from foundations. Less than 5 percent of the total comes from individuals, a ratio that Coulter would like to see increase over time.

Main contributors in recent years have included the Goldman Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Oak Foundation and the Santa Fe-based Lannan Foundation, which in part "focuses on projects consistent with traditional values in the areas of education, Native culture, the revival and preservation of languages, legal rights, and environmental protection and advocacy." A host of other organizations, both large and small, fill in the mix.

Although many other nonprofits across the nation report dwindling resources in the current economic downturn, Coulter says the center has largely enjoyed steadfast support over the years. But that doesn't mean raising and managing so much money is easy.

"When the stock market goes down, it has a really sharp impact on grants," he explains. "We have definitely experienced some difficult times, but we haven't had to cut back on any of our program work."

The group's endeavors are focused on six major areas - indigenous rights and international human rights, land rights, sovereignty and self-governance, and environmental protection.

In the United States, the center, among many other cases, helped South Dakota's Oglala Sioux Tribe settle its claim against the federal government for mismanagement of its trust funds; assisted New York's Oneida Nation in a successful U.S. Supreme Court case upholding the right of tribes to sue to recover lands; helped the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe protect religious rights at Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming; worked with Alaska Native groups to establish an historic agreement over the clean-up of toxins in the Yukon River watershed; and was involved in the purchase of 2,500 acres of land for use by the Independent Traditional Seminole Nation in Florida.

Ongoing domestic projects include fighting for the Western Shoshone in Nevada to protect their land rights and representing the Fort Belknap Tribes in Montana to ensure that pollution from the Zortman-Landusky gold mine complex is adequately controlled. A main part of their work is also the continuing challenge of the way Congress and the courts deal with tribes and Indian people in general.

"In some respects there's been a lot of favorable change," Coulter says of the more than three decades he's been practicing law. "Indian governments are more effective and independent than they were. Huge improvements have been made in education, income levels and in health and general welfare. But regarding legal rights, I think the situation has grown worse instead of improving. That's a very bad thing, because the law wasn't very good 25 years ago."

At the top of Coulter's indignation list are laws and policies that still allow the federal government to violate treaties, take away land without due process, control many other tribal actions and ignore international forums that look upon its actions with disfavor. One of the biggest downfalls, he says, has been the failure to make substantial progress against the ongoing plenary powers Congress wields over tribal nations.

"These are shockingly discriminatory laws," he says. "They are very antiquated and in many cases unconstitutional. We haven't been able to change any of them after 25 years of work. But awareness is higher, and that's a step forward. We're not about to stop. We're getting more traction on these issues now. More and more people understand."

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court is chipping away "at long-established rules that protected Indian peoples and tribes," he adds. "That has made the situation much worse."

Key to the center's work, Coulter explains, is establishing a "fair and just" legal system that will allow tribes to better deal with their problems and allow them to make further progress in all arenas. And making those changes happen, he maintains, takes persistence.

"When I started, there were only a few Indian lawyers," says Coulter. "Now there are hundreds and hundreds of them, and that's making a big difference. The rest of the world pays a lot more attention to Indian law. It's no longer a backwater."

According to Coulter, less than half of the center's work is outside the United States. But the international arena is where the organization typically gets the most publicity, in part because all of its out-of-the-country projects are groundbreaking.

For example, the center was a key player in convincing the UN to create its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and was a major participant in the drafting of the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the completion of a major study of indigenous land rights. The group has also won favorable rulings before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a branch of the OAS, and the related Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has sided with the center on numerous indigenous issues. Last December, for example, the commission found that the U.S. government had violated basic Western Shoshone rights while dealing with their land claims.

In Nicaragua, center attorneys helped the Awas Tingni people have their land rights formally recognized as human rights, which led to 2001 requirements that the government demarcate and respect the integrity of their territory. In 1989, the center also worked with President Jimmy Carter to ensure that dislocated Indian leaders retained the right to return to Nicaragua.

Important gains have also been made in Belize, where Mayan land rights are now recognized under a first-ever agreement brokered with the help of the center. In Honduras, the group helped Miskito and Sumo Indians complete maps of their aboriginal territory as part of their quest for formal land recognition and protection. Yanomami Indians in Brazil have made important legal gains with center assistance, and in Canada, the group has been involved in battles with the federal government over land rights claimed by the Carrier and Sekani first nations. (More details about the organization's work can be found at www.indianlaw.org.)

"They are there to represent traditional elements in Indian tribes that may not be represented by tribal governments themselves," says veteran Indian-law attorney Harry Sachse of the Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse and Enderson firm. "That means a different and more traditional viewpoint gets heard in the courts and elsewhere. I think they do a real service that way. The center's staff has also taken the knowledge they learned in the United States and used it in Central and South America. They're taking the lead in representing Indians there, where the situation is far worse than in the United States in regards to massacres, people getting killed and land being taken away. They've been winning rights there that had never been recognized before."

The center's projects are governed by a 13-member board of directors, which includes Coulter, who also serves as the group's president. Among other luminaries, past board members have included American Indian author and scholar Vine Deloria Jr. A second office, run by center co-founder Steve Tullberg, is located in Washington, D.C.

Coulter, 57, received his undergraduate degree from Williams College and his law degree from Columbia Law School. An accomplished musician, Coulter also worked as draft counselor during the Vietnam War and for a time directed an inmate grievance committee in Maryland. In 1972, he became a staff attorney with the Native American Legal Defense and Education Fund and later worked for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. His wife, attorney Samantha Sanchez, runs the Helena-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, a prominent research organization.

Coulter says a major goal for the future, along with maintaining ongoing programs and initiating as many new projects as possible, is to do a better job of "strategic" communication, or the use of media publicity to not just convey information, but to more effectively further a given cause. So far, he says, there's not been enough resources to maintain a full-time media position.

"That's an area where we're giving a lot of thought and hoping for growth," he explains.

Meanwhile, Coulter says, he and the center's staff will continue to forge relationships with Natives in need, push for institutional reforms, and peck away at the long list of injustices in the United States and beyond.

"So long as Indian communities suffer, and they certainly are, we have an important obligation to fight hard to change the law and to use the law on behalf of Indian tribes," he says. "I think there is always the opportunity and challenge to make these things right."