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Native American Rights Fund celebrates 35 years; Preserving tribal existence and protecting natural resources

BOULDER, Col. -- The American West is dry as a bone -- and guess which
senior water rights holders have often been last in line?

According to NARF's executive director, John Echohawk, J.D., "we recognized
early on that this was a real critical issue for tribes, and we've been
working 35 years on it. Water in the West is really valuable, and just like
we thought, it's getting more and more important every day."

Not to say that water is the only issue NARF tackles in its work to
preserve tribal existence and protect the natural resources Indian country
depends on. In the area of tribal existence alone, NARF's leadership has
focused on the recognition and restoration of status to tribes that were
terminated, tribal jurisdiction and taxation issues, and the Indian
Economic Development Law Project through which NARF provides legal guidance
to tribes and Indian communities.

Of the many hundreds of tribes in the United States, 562 are federally
recognized including the once-terminated Menominee and Siletz tribes, both
of which NARF helped during its first decade of existence in the 1970s.
Similarly in 1983, NARF assisted the newly recognized yet landless Kickapoo
Indians in gaining a 100-acre land base along with federal health care,
housing, and education services. The list goes on. Among others, including
the 226 Native villages in Alaska, NARF helped the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of
Arizona, Louisiana's Tunica-Biloxi Tribe, the Poarch Creek Tribe of Alabama
and the Narragansetts of Rhode Island achieve federal restoration or

As far as sovereignty goes, NARF doesn't miss a single resounding drum
beat. NARF's publications state that "NARF has handled several major cases
with far-reaching implications affecting the sovereign powers of the
tribes. These cases have involved the issues of jurisdiction and taxation
in several states."

For starters, NARF took South Dakota to task and said it couldn't charge
Indians living on checkerboarded land with crimes. As NARF's editor Ray
Ramirez explained, "Former NARF Attorney Arlinda Locklear -- the first
Indian woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court -- won a unanimous
decision. The court rejected state jurisdiction, on 1.6 million acres of
land that were opened to non-Indian settlement in 1908, in favor of federal
and tribal control."

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The same thing happened with the Winnebagos and Nevada's Ely Colony
Shoshones, with NARF helping both tribes to oust first Nebraska's and then
Nevada's criminal jurisdiction over Indian people living on the
reservation. Still, while jurisdiction is one side of the coin, taxation is
the other, and NARF's been vigilant on that front as well trying to keep
states' long fingers out of tribal pockets.

The White Mountain Apache tribe was one group that benefited. In 1980 NARF
assisted lead counsel that argued and won a case stating that states cannot
apply license fees or taxes to on-reservation operations and transactions.
NARF also extended its hand northward in 1985 and represented the Kluti
Kaah Native Village of Copper Center in its effort to collect tribal taxes
from oil companies.

Of course, the oil companies have tried to get around the payments by
arguing that the Kluti Kaah is not a federally recognized tribe and thus
doesn't have the power to tax. In 1993, though, a federal district court
ruled that the village might have the status to tax the Trans-Alaska
Pipeline System that runs through their territory, so the case continues to
make its way through the legal process with NARF's backing.

Rounding out the work it does to promote and protect tribal existence is
its Indian Economic Development Law Project, through which NARF provides
legal guidance to tribes and Indian communities working to come into their
own. Prior to the gaming industry taking off, extractive industries like
mining and timber harvest were the mainstays of tribal economies. So, as
would be expected of an organization of NARF's stature, the modern-day
warriors stationed in Boulder have been instrumental in enabling tribes to
take greater control over economic activity that affects their homelands.

With the welfare of generations yet to come in mind, NARF has helped tribes
assess the effects of business undertakings on their lands as well as work
with the National Tribal Environmental Council and the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency to provide the tribes with the tools to regulate economic
development on their lands and access funding for tribal environmental

Regulation, criminal jurisdiction, taxation, sovereignty, restoration,
recognition. The trained minds at NARF connect the dots between these
rather abstract concepts and the rhetoric, boiling them down in terms of
everyday life for people in Indian country.

Echohawk added that there's still plenty of work ahead; and that as a
nonprofit, NARF continues to seek out grants and contributions necessary to
provide financial support for its work. "We are also able to accept fees
for our services, and some of the work we do is actually paid for in whole
or part by the Native American clients. Our fee income has increased in
recent years as more tribes are able to afford legal counseling. At the
same time, many tribes also have increased ability to make contributions,
something that offsets our work with clients that can't afford to pay all
or part of the costs."