I was very honored to receive the Thurgood Marshall Award at the ABA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, in August 2023. It was recognition of me and of the Native American Rights Fund, the nonprofit national Indian legal defense fund that I have worked for over the past 53 years, serving consecutively as executive director since 1977. All of our staff, board members, clients, and donors over these last 53 years deserve recognition for their great work and support that have advanced Native American civil rights.
The Native American Rights Fund was founded in 1970 during the civil rights movement to provide free legal advice and assistance to Native American tribes, organizations, and individuals on major issues involving Indian rights. Nineteen-seventy was also the year that President Richard Nixon announced the new federal Indian policy of Indian self-determination and recognition of Tribal sovereignty, changing the old policy of termination of tribes and forcing the assimilation of Indians into mainstream society. Our Board of Directors, consisting of Native American leaders from across the country, established a set of priorities for us to address in accepting requests for assistance. Those priorities were preserving Tribal existence; protecting Tribal natural resources; promoting Native American human rights; holding governments accountable to Native Americans; developing Indian law; and educating the public about Indian rights, laws, and issues.
We took on a big Indian treaty rights case right away. The U.S. v. Washington case involved the tribes in western Washington and their rights under the treaties to fish the way they had traditionally done. They always depended on the salmon there, and they had a treaty provision that allowed them to continue to fish at their usual and accustomed places, in common with the citizens of the state. This language had been interpreted by the state to mean the Indians had to get a fishing license just like everybody else, but that was not the way the tribes had understood the treaty language. That’s the argument we brought forward in the court. The tribes, of course, started with all the fish before the state began, and the tribes agreed to share half of the fish with the state; that was what the treaty provision meant, the court ruled. The tribes went from getting 2 percent of the fish to 50 percent of the fish, comanaging the fishery with the state of Washington. That was a treaty right. Everybody took note of the fact that these Indian treaties were not ancient history. They were the supreme law of the land under the Constitution. Other treaty cases followed that we all worked on.