Skip to main content

Using their law and their history to protect our rights

As a law student in the late 1960s at the University of New Mexico, I was
part of the first wave of American Indians to go to law school under the
Indian Law Scholarship Program funded by the Office of Economic
Opportunity. We were not only exposed to some of the first courses in
federal Indian law -- we also became aware of national Native issues. One
of those issues was the Indian fishing rights struggle in the Northwest;
and one of the leaders in that fight was Hank Adams.

After I graduated from law school and went to work for the Native American
Rights Fund as one of its first staff attorneys, we became involved in that
struggle. The case resulted in the famous 1974 "Boldt decision," named
after George Boldt, the courageous U.S. district judge who held that the
tribes had treaty rights to fish that must be honored by the state of
Washington. That decision was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. One
of the primary proponents of the legal strategy in that struggle was Hank

As an activist and an intellectual, Hank knew well that Indian rights were
grounded in centuries of history, law and policy that validated modern-day
Indian claims and that the Indian termination policy that we were fighting
against was merely an attempt to sweep it all under the rug.

Establishing that 1855 Indian treaties still had meaning was a watershed
event in the history of the nation and set the stage for even more Native
legal and political gains in the years ahead. One way in which progressive
Native self-determination policies took hold in the 1970s was through the
American Indian Policy Review Commission. The commission had been formed by
Congress in response to Indian demands for reform in Indian affairs to
match the new Indian self-determination policy. Several task forces were
set up to review different areas of Indian affairs and make recommendations
for reform for consideration by the commission and by Congress. Task Force
One was established to address Trust responsibilities and the
federal-Indian relationship, including treaty review. Who was appointed
chairman of Task Force One? Hank Adams.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

I was fortunate enough to be named as a member of Task Force One along with
Doug Nash, with whom I had gone to law school. We also worked together at
the NARF. Doug and I focused our work on legal reforms in treaty
interpretation and trust responsibilities. Hank was the primary author of
most of the task force report and illustrated his deep knowledge of Indian
affairs by writing six sections: a general summary and basic
recommendations; a section on Indian population, land and economic
resources; a section on the origin and nature of the federal trust
responsibility; a section on the continuing debate among competing
interests and influences for controlling the destiny of Indian people; a
general history of the origins and application of federal Indian law; and a
report on BIA forestry issues.

A review of Adams' exhaustive work in the Task Force One report shows how
visionary he was in all of his early activism by basing his policy
recommendations in the extensive history and law of the relationship
between the Indian nations and other nations -- which he knew in
astonishing detail. Indian country continues to benefit today from what
Adams taught us not so long ago: to use their law and their history to
protect our rights.

John Echohawk is the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund,
which, along with private counsel, represents the plaintiff class in Cobell
v. Norton.