LAW school was a revelation to John E. Echohawk, a Pawnee. As a
student at the University of New Mexico in the mid-1960s he
discovered a body of laws governing Indian affairs that he had never
"Our tribal leaders knew nothing about the laws that already
existed," recounts Mr. Echohawk, relaxing in the lawbook-lined
conference room of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) offices
here. "None of us knew. We were not informed about them in school.
A law doesn't do any good until it is enforced. So we had to learn
the legal process."
There were but 20 American Indian lawyers in the practice at the
time. The only Indian law casebook was a loose-leaf collection of
federal statutes and Indian treaties assembled by a law professor at
the University of California, Los Angeles.
Today, there are perhaps 700 American Indian lawyers practicing.
And the nonprofit organization Mr. Echohawk helped found 20 years
ago has worked to enforce the existing laws on behalf of more than
75 tribes and Eskimo communities, NARF clients.
Perhaps the primary achievement of the organization has been to
restore the sovereignty of American Indian nations.
"There has been more litigation in the last 20 years than in the
previous 200 on behalf of the Indians," says Echohawk, who has been
director of NARF for the past 15 years. "Federal policy now
recognizes the right of Indian people to self-determination - the
right to control our own affairs."
It hasn't been easy. NARF's all-Indian board of directors decides
which cases the 18-lawyer organization will take up - cases that
often drag on for years and absorb lots of cash. Fees make up only
about 5 percent of the operating costs for the nonprofit group. The
rest comes from government grants, individual contributions, and
"There are few lawyers and very little money," says Echohawk. "So
those priorities involve those issues most important to Indian
country." (Echohawk would not comment on the ongoing Mohawk Indian
dispute in Canada, saying NARF deals only with United States Indian
Sovereignty issues include tribal status, natural resources
jurisdiction, education, and the "right of Indian people to live as
Indians," says Ecohawk.
NARF has represented various tribes wishing to regain their
status as tribes. One precedent-setting case involved the Menominee
tribe of Wisconsin. Congress had terminated the Menominees' status
as a tribal government in the 1950s as part of a policy aimed at
cultural assimilation and dismantling the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Without federal protection, the tribe was subject only to state
laws, including taxation. Tribal members were forced to sell off
land to pay taxes.
"We made the case to Congress that the termination decision had
been disastrous to the people who had lost much of their land,"
Echohawk says. "In 1973 there was a dramatic reversal and the
tribe's status was restored to them. Since then, a dozen or so other
tribes have had their status restored. We've handled two or three
Most of these cases have involved battles of jurisdiction between
the states and the federal government to regulate activities on the