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August 06, 2023

Native American rights icon receives ABA Thurgood Marshall Award

The American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice honored Native American rights activist John E. Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, with the 2023 Thurgood Marshall Award.

Native American rights activist John E. Echohawk received the ABA Thurgood Marshall Award at the 2023 Annual Meeting in Denver.

Native American rights activist John E. Echohawk received the ABA Thurgood Marshall Award at the 2023 Annual Meeting in Denver.

The award was presented at a dinner celebration with more than 580 guests honoring Echohawk’s distinguished career during the ABA Annual Meeting in Denver on Saturday, Aug. 5, at the Hyatt Regency Denver.

“I want to thank the ABA for this very high honor,” said Echohawk after the performance of an honor song and traditional blanket ceremony, during which attendees at the dinner progressed on stage to greet Echohawk. “It’s something I will revere for the rest of my life.”

Echohawk said that he shares the ABA honor with the staff of NARF: “They’re doing great work to help our people across the country. They are like me, very dedicated to protecting the rights of Native Americans and they do a wonderful job.”

U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke spoke on the importance of such work and highlighted the commitment of her agency “to stand up to discrimination wherever it rears its ugly head and to fiercely defend the civil rights of all people in our country.”

“Thurgood Marshall was a brave and valiant champion of these civil rights, and in giving this award to John Echohawk tonight, we rekindle the inspiration of Marshall’s example,” she said. “We draw strength from Marshall’s faith in the rule of law and believe that lawyers can make a difference and we remind ourselves that while we stand on Marshall’s shoulders we still have to keep rising.”

The award is named for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who epitomized individual commitment, in word and action, to the cause of civil rights in this country. The award recognizes similar long-term contributions by other members of the legal profession to the advancement of civil rights, social justice and human rights in the United States.

For more than 50 years, Echohawk, a member of the Pawnee Indian tribe, has been with the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado, since its inception in 1970 and has served as its executive director since 1977.

Echohawk was the first graduate of the University of New Mexico’s special program to train Indigenous lawyers. While in law school there, Echohawk was a founding member of the American Indian Law Students Association.

Recognized as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal, Echohawk has received many service awards and other recognitions for his leadership. In 2006, the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice named him a Human Rights Hero in an article published by Human Rights Magazine.

Currently, Echohawk serves on the boards of the American Indian Resources Institute, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the Indigenous Language Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.

On the announcement of the award, Juan Thomas, chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, said, “Despite the obstacles of systemic racism, efforts to eliminate tribal territories, and the marginalization of the Indigenous people of America, our nation owes a significant amount of gratitude to John Echohawk for his work, his sacrifice and his commitment to never giving up.” 

The ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice provides leadership within the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties and social justice. Representing nearly 10,000 members with a wide range of professional interests and expertise, the section keeps its members abreast of complex civil rights and social justice issues and ensures that they remain a focus of law and policy.