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Native American Rights Fund celebrates 35 years; Building a better America for everyone

BOULDER, Colo. -- Are you looking for a modern-day warrior society? Try the
Native American Rights Fund's 13 attorneys, support staff, board of
directors, the national Indian legal defense fund and, most recently, the
Tribal Supreme Court Project that NARF was asked to lead.

Gone are the days when, with the smoke of early-morning fires at their
backs, warriors leveled arrows at invading marauders who had an untamed
lust for possession. Instead, this phalanx of contemporary men and women
warriors at NARF take their stands in law libraries, around the sleek lines
of conference tables and, finally, before the bench of the Supreme Court of
the United States.

In a low, unassuming voice projecting a quiet dignity to be reckoned with,
NARF Executive Director John Echohawk, J.D., stated, "We are building a
better America for everyone -- Indian and non-Indian."

But it wasn't always this way. When NARF came into being 35 years ago in
1970, as Echohawk put it, "The very existence of Indian tribes in America
was at stake. Would the federal policy of terminating Indian tribes
altogether prevail, or could the tribes adapt to become viable sovereign
governments in modern-day America, using their strong legal foundation in
American law?"

The timing was auspicious. The era was ripe for change. Inspired by the
Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated
schools in 1954, blacks staged protests over civil rights. Distraught by
the war in Vietman and bored by middle-American culture (or lack thereof),
the counterculture and political left rose up against its own parents,
challenging the very ethics in place in the nation. Mainstream
middle-classers coming of age in the late '60s went on to embrace the civil
rights movement, become champions of environmental and healthy living
reforms and, of course, look toward the nations within to see how they
could support what was up in Indian country.

It turns out that although there was plenty of demoralization and
dissolution that had come about through 100 years of cultural dislocation,
those coming of age in Indian country felt the same winds brush their faces
that were sweeping across America. Indeed, some, like Echohawk, poised
right on the cusp of progressive change.

"When I was a senior in high school, I decided to study law and started on
that path. So after I graduated, I enrolled at the University of New Mexico
and earned a B.A. in government."

The year was 1967, when as an expression of the signs of the times and part
of Johnson's "war on poverty," the federal government took the
unprecedented step of offering graduate scholarships to American Indian law
students. "The school the government picked to administer the program
happened to be the University of New Mexico, and I applied. So I was in the
first class of Native American law students with federally funded
scholarships. The idea was to get some professionals among Native
Americans, since at that time we had only a handful of doctors and
lawyers."

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Echohawk and seven others received scholarships -- and proceeded down a
path that has had radical implications for Indian country.

"To their credit, the U&M law faculty put together one of the first Indian
law courses, and that's where we started discovering that we had this
strong legal foundation for things none of us knew about. Of course, we all
had a general idea that things weren't right; but not the specifics. It was
a real eye-opener."

The following year, another batch of Indian law students started through
law school. "They came away with the same impressions we had. And the year
after there was another group," Echohawk said. "By then we had enough
critical mass to form the Native American Law Student Association, a group
based on the realization that we had this strong legal foundation that we
could build on for the future of our tribes."

It was 1970 when Echohawk graduated from law school, and he didn't let any
grass grow under his feet. NARF was born the same year, and he was on the
ground floor. "The federal government was still in the mentality of
terminating tribes, but that began changing as we started bringing these
cases.

"Also in 1970, Nixon became the first president to officially embrace the
idea of Indian self-determination and reject termination. Still, it took
time; I think many people in 1970 just couldn't believe the treaties were
still applicable and the tribes could exercise sovereign authority."

He added that another aspect of the "war on poverty" that ensued during the
1970s "dealt with the provision of legal services to poor people by the
federal government. They realized that millions had no legal representation
because they couldn't afford a lawyer."

Legal aid services were established around the country, and "some of the
brightest students coming out of law school ended up on reservations.
There, they basically stumbled onto the area of Indian law on their own.
They realized the potential - all these unrepresented clients - and ended
up collaborating with those of us coming out of the U&M program," said
Echohawk. "I had a summer job with these folks. It was a way to connect
what was going on in the field with what we had studied in the formal
setting."

The rest is history. NARF has enjoyed 35 years of success and, in the
process, has changed the lives of Indian people. Echohawk has been there
the entire time.

"We've been real fortunate to work on these issues of importance to Indian
country. There are a lot of people out there that need help. We have a lot
of work to do and will keep doing it as long as we can generate the support
we need," Echohawk said.