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April 01, 2006

Human Rights Hero: John Echohawk

by Nicholas Targ

A good lawyer wins cases for clients. A great lawyer wins the law. For the past thirty-six years, John Echohawk, founder and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), has been doing just that—winning the law for American Indian nations and Alaska Native tribes.

An enrolled member of the Pawnee Tribe, Echohawk and the forty-person staff of NARF have fought for the land, water, and dignity of Native Americans—and for fundamental promises embodied in sometimes too-long-neglected treaties. They have met with success.

Echohawk has been called the “Thurgood Marshall of Indian law” and is among the most significant American Indian leaders. Indeed, he helped usher in, and has given substance to, the modern era of “tribal self-determination.” This period has brought new hope and a sense of renewal to tribes, following President Richard Nixon’s ending the period officially termed “tribal termination” in 1970.

Also in 1970, Echohawk became the first Native American to graduate from the University of New Mexico School of Law. It was during his time in law school that he found his life’s work. Echohawk has said, “I realized that tribal leaders and the rest of the people back on the reservation didn’t know about things that were ours by law . . . , law that was going unenforced.”

Addressing this unmet legal need has garnered him a place in the National Law Journal’s “100 Most Powerful Attorneys” for almost twenty years running.

Following law school, Echohawk joined the California Indian Legal Services. He quickly understood the magnitude of the work to be done on behalf of low-income American Indians. More important, he had the vision to understand the systemic changes needed and the sustained energy to help make those changes happen.

As with the civil rights movement, fundamental issues for Native Americans—sovereignty, rights in land and water, and cultural and religious practices—required action. “We needed lawyers to represent our people on the most important Indian rights cases, just like the civil rights lawyers had represented African-Americans in important cases in the civil rights movement,” he said.

Echohawk, along with other attorneys and tribal members, and with the support of the Ford Foundation, established NARF on the model of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and other civil rights impact-litigation organizations. NARF’s mission has remained unaltered for its thirty-six years:

• to preserve tribal existence,

• to protect tribal natural resources,

• to promote human rights,

• to ensure accountability of governments, and

• to develop Indian law and educate the public about Indian rights, laws, and issues.

With Echohawk at the helm, NARF’s cases and legislative successes have touched all aspects of tribal life. They range from securing federal recognition of tribal sovereignty and establishing historical rights in land and waters to helping draft and win passage of such major pieces of legislation as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and amendments to the Voting Rights Act.

In very real and immediate ways, Echohawk has helped ensure the legacy and patrimony of tribes across the country for future generations. In so doing, he has also helped to build bridges across cultures and to ensure the integrity of long-standing legal obligations. These efforts make John Echohawk a Human Rights Hero.

As published in Human Rights, Spring 2006, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp.25-26.

Nicholas Targ

Nicholas Targ, an attorney in Washington, D.C., is an adjunct professor of environmental law at Howard University School of Law. An editorial board member of Human Rights, he was an editor of this special issue.