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October 01, 2014

Human Rights Hero: Keith Harper

by John E. Echohawk

No other citizen of a federally recognized Indian tribe had ever served as a U.S. ambassador until last year when Keith Harper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was confirmed by the Senate as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

This historic honor uniquely qualifies Keith as this issue’s Human Rights Hero.

I was honored in 2006 to be selected as Human Rights Hero for my Native American legal advocacy work at the Native American Rights Fund, which I cofounded in 1970 and where I have served as executive director since 1977. One of the major reasons for the success of our nonprofit Indian legal defense fund has been staffing it with as many Native American lawyers as possible because they have an additional qualification for this work due to their Native American background and experience.

We were very fortunate to be able to hire another Native American lawyer, Keith Harper, in 1995, a year after he graduated from the New York University School of Law and then went on to serve a federal judicial clerkship for a year. Keith worked in our Washington, D.C., office on various cases involving issues of tribal sovereignty, natural resources, human rights, government accountability, and Indian law development. Notably, in 2001, he was selected as a Leadership Conference on Civil Rights delegate to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

Perhaps the largest case that Keith worked on while he was with us was the Cobell v. Salazar class action lawsuit filed in 1996 against the federal government seeking accountings for mismanagement of trust fund accounts of 500,000 individual Indians. He continued to work on the case after he left the Native American Rights Fund in 2006 to join the Kilpatrick Townsend firm, our co-counsel in the Cobell trust fund case. The case was finally settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion.

I worked with Keith again in 2008 after Barack Obama was elected president when we both served on the transition team at the U.S. Department of the Interior, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs is located. I am now looking forward to working with him in his new capacity at the Human Rights Council.

The Native American Rights Fund has been representing the National Congress of American Indians on issues relating to the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples since 1999. The UN adopted the Declaration in 2007 and held a World Conference of Indigenous Peoples last year to address it. The Outcome Document from the Conference specifically invites the Human Rights Council to give attention to causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women and girls, and to examine the mandates of existing UN mechanisms to determine how the UN can effectively promote respect for the Declaration and the achievements of its ends.

We believe that Keith’s role in serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council puts him in a position where he can assist indigenous peoples, including those in the United States, in full and meaningful realization of the rights recognized in the Declaration. He truly is a Human Rights Hero.

Web Links

Native American Rights Fund:
UN Human Rights Council:

John E. Echohawk

John E. Echohawk is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Law. He co-founded the Native American Rights Fund in 1970 and has been its executive director since 1977. The Native American Rights Fund has been involved in most of the major Indian rights litigation for the past 45 years.