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Experience and dedication fuel Native American Rights Fund

BOULDER, Colo. - Thirty-three years ago, California Indian Legal Services, the first Indian-controlled law firm offering specialized legal representation to Indians and tribes, initiated a pilot project to serve the needs of Indians on a national level. That project, Native American Rights Fund (NARF), became the most successful, Indian-specific legal organization in America.

Established in Boulder, Colo., as a non-profit corporation that provides nationwide Indian legal representation, NARF is funded through private, corporate, foundational, governmental, religious, and tribal sources. With 15 attorneys and 40 staff members, NARF's expertise in Indian law helps preserve, protect and advocate for American Indian legal rights.

The special relationship between the nations' 2.5 million Indians and the U.S., makes ensuring Native legal rights difficult and complicated. NARF focuses on existing treaties and laws, striving to make sure federal and state obligations to tribes are met. They concentrate on five objectives: preservation of tribal existence; protection of natural resources; promotion of human rights; accountability of governments; and development of Indian law. Through public education, they create awareness about rights and concerns of the national Indian community.

Walter Echohawk Jr., a member of the Oklahoma Pawnee Nation and senior staff attorney in Boulder, is an experienced lawyer, tribal judge, scholar and activist. Since 1973, his work has centered on religious freedom, prisoner's rights, water and treaty issues, reburial and repatriation. He believes NARF is important for providing high quality legal assistance for complex issues to tribal communities that can not afford representation. "This vital service has made a difference in the lives of Native Americans," he states.

To protect human rights, NARF seeks to enforce and strengthen laws that guarantee religious, cultural, educational, international rights, and child welfare. Their work encompasses diverse areas including the Native American Church, Native military personnel and Indian prisoners. They assist tribes in their struggle for the return of ancestral remains; work to preserve sacred sites; help develop and implement tribal programs for cultural resource management; and challenge laws which limit American Indian participation in legal and voting processes. They have participated in the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

In addition, they have assisted tribes in 12 states to seek compensation in a class action suit addressing mismanagement of individual Indian money trust accounts, pushing for government accountability. NARF's National Indian Law Library, houses a collection of legal documents, tribal constitutions, codes, ordinances, legal pleadings, and law review articles with free public access.

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John Echohawk, also a member of the Pawnee Nation, is a co-founder of the organization and an award-winning Indian law leader. He believes the most critical issue facing tribes today is the Supreme Court's current view of Indian law and legalities - a new jurisprudence to limit Native rights. "Tribes and Native people have lost almost every case before the Supreme Court in the last 10 years as the Court goes about reinterpreting federal Indian law." he points out. "Hopefully, the Tribal Supreme Court Project can improve the success rate." The Tribal Supreme Court Project, a joint undertaking of NARF and the National Congress of American Indians, is part of the Tribal Sovereignty Protection Initiative, established to change the Supreme Court's perspective on tribal sovereign immunity and to address pending cases. A Working Group of 200 attorneys, educators, and an advisory board of tribal leaders, helps support the project.

NARF is also assertive in the protection of tribal natural resources, stating that preservation of land bases and resources are critical to tribal existence. Indian reserved water rights figure prominently in the implementation and development of environmental law policy that places authority for enforcement on Indian lands in the hands of tribes. "Tribal water rights have been high on the tribal agenda since the 1960s when the Supreme Court reconfirmed their existence and the tribal self-determination movement got underway." Echohawk points out, "Many claims have been completed by litigation or settlement, but many more tribes have claims still pending. Each tribe decides for itself, based on the circumstances, whether to litigate its water rights claim or seek to settle it through negotiations." Negotiated settlements are preferable, but litigation becomes necessary when fair settlements can't be reached.

Echohawk Jr., says the need to quantify water rights; prison injustices; intrusion on sacred sites and failure to meet federal trust obligations under treaties and laws have compromised Native rights. This is complicated by increasing hostility in courts and Congress. "If the federal court system fails to provide a level playing field, Indian rights are at the mercy of politicians, and that is unsatisfactory," he says.

While strides have been made toward religious freedom in the past two decades, he says there is still surprisingly little legal protection for the practice of Native American religions in the United States. "Tribal religion has always been viewed with hostility by non-Indian citizens and policy makers. We should not be surprised by trends toward intolerance and be prepared for hard times."

In 1989 he helped negotiate a reburial agreement with the Smithsonian Institution. Since implementation of that agreement, the Smithsonian has taken initiative in extending repatriation to Native communities in other nations. Much attention was given to repatriation and grave protection in1992 with the 500th anniversary of the Columbus invasion. Nevertheless, as co-author of the 1994 book, "Battlefields and Burial Grounds," Echohawk Jr. cautions, "That anniversary has come and gone but the problems remain. Native Americans must remain ever vigilant to protect their rights as indigenous peoples. Grave desecration still exists in places like South Dakota and Hawaii where Native Americans have been forced to file lawsuits under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Moreover, NAGPRA itself is under attack by the scientific community, as seen in the Kennewick Man litigation."

The skeletal remains of "Kennewick Man," were found in 1996 below the Columbia River's Lake Wallula in Kennewick, Wash. Controversy developed over authority in the matter. Claims were made by local tribes, local officials, and the scientific community. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took possession of the remains, an action challenged in federal court through NAGPRA.

Both men agree that tribes and their members are better off in 2003 than in 1993. John Echohawk credits financial gains through gaming for many advances. "Our financial success simply has enabled us to do more for ourselves than ever before," he says. Both men believe continued vigilance is critical to continued success of tribes. "I encourage young Indian students who have an interest in Native American law to pursue it. These Native legal issues will keep coming up and we need dedicated and qualified Native attorneys to assert and protect them. Each generation of Native people has had that challenge and had to meet that responsibility. The next generation of our people needs to prepare themselves," says John. Walter adds, "There remains a strong need for "real Indians" in the practice of law. In the last analysis, each tribe can only depend upon its own warriors to protect the people."