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Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

Nearly fifty years ago the Native American Rights Fund was established to defend treaty rights, sovereignty and human rights. Today's Indian Country Today guest is John Echohawk, Pawnee.

A few of his comments from the broadcast. 

"Human rights issues have always been one of the priority issues the Native American Rights Fund focuses on. And we go way back working with Suzan Harjo against that offensive name of that team. We were involved in the litigation that she started trying to eliminate their trademark. We represented the National Congress of American Indian as amicus curiae, a friend of the court, brief in that litigation. And of course, as you know, it ended up basically the Supreme Court in another case, deciding that under the first amendment a trademark could be anything, whether it was offensive or not. It's really damaging to our children to see those images."

"Being involved in these issues over the last 50 years, of course, the ultimate decision maker is the U.S. Supreme Court, so that's always been our focus. They are basically the ones who decide what federal Indian law is. In the seventies, eighties into the nineties, we had a nice run there where tribes won most of their cases going up before the court. And there was an inordinate number of those cases going up because for so many years, we didn't really have any legal representation on our issues because, you know, our people are poor, couldn't afford lawyers. But then when we came along as a nonprofit and started raising money, making these lawyers available to our people to bring up these important cases, then things really took off."

"Most recently in this administration there was a vacancy that President Trump filled with Neil Gorsuch. And so we did research on his record, it was a good record. We reported that to the tribal leaders, they supported him. And of course he got confirmed. He's been on the court. 

"He knows his federal Indian law very well. He was a judge on the 10th circuit court of appeals in Denver for a number of years. And of course there's many tribes in that 10th circuit area. So he had a lot of experience dealing with those federal Indian law issues plus being a westerner. He knows tribes and he knows the Native people. It's very helpful."

"Justice Gorsuch leading the way and his a real focus is on separation of powers. And Congress, you know, basically approves the treaties and they're the only ones who can change it and not the judges. And so he really looks at the language of the treaties and whether Congress has changed anything. And it doesn't matter what the judges think if Congress didn't act to change the treaties then the treaties are still in full force and effect."

"The number of Native American lawyers have grown in law schools, virtually all of Western law schools now teach federal Indian law, a number of the Eastern law schools teaching. And now even out West with the bar exams, there's usually Indian law questions on there because these days, most legal practitioners are going to run into an Indian law question sooner or later because things have changed we're on the map."

"Tribal leaders always make that clear that our issues are not, you know, Democratic issues or Republican issues. They're basically national issues. They're nonpartisan, that's the way they're dealt with on the Hill."

"It really sprang out of this Tribal Supreme Court Project, again. I think it was 2013, I think seven years ago, the Supreme Court decided a case called Shelby County and in that case, basically they gutted the Federal Voting Rights Act, the key provision in that act, which required a pre-clearance of changes in state voting laws by the justice department before they went into effect. Because there are a lot of discriminatory changes in voting laws that states were trying to do and so that's why the voting rights act was passed, to stop that. And so a key provision was the pre-clearance in 2013 in the Shelby County case, the Supreme Court declared that invalid, unconstitutional."

"The states could pass any kind of changes in voting rights laws that they wanted, and guess what they started doing it. And they impacted our people and other minority people as well. And now to stop that we all have to go to federal court and get the federal courts in long, long, long, drawn out legal procedure proceedings to declare those laws unconstitutional. And so we had to step up to the plate and help Indian Country organize across the board to fight all these changes in state voting rights laws that were starting to impact our people. And that fight is still going on."

"We have to make sure that we are able to get our people out as part of our work and voting rights area. We did a series of hearings across the country where we explored the obstacles to Indian voting. And based on all of those hearings over the years, we put together a report that was recently released that talks about all the obstacles that our people face trying to vote. And we worked with Senator Udall and others there in the Congress to put together a Native American Voting Rights Act that addresses all of those issues that causes us problems in terms of trying to vote. And that's pending in the Congress right now."

Mark Trahant is anchoring Indian Country Today this week. Jourdan Bennett-Begaye is Indian Country Today's Washington editor and she is reporting on COVID-19 cases and deaths.