Attorney John Echohawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, seized the opportunity as a young man to attend the the University of New Mexico and used his education to advance the rights of Native American tribes around the country. In his early days, he taught at multiple universities, including University of California Berkeley and University of Colorado, as a lecturer on Federal Indian Law. Today, he can be found in the Native American Rights Fund office, which he co-founded in the early 1970’s, or on the plethora of boards on which he serves. His work with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has been responsible for most of the major Indian rights court cases since the 1970’s.
His work is not only limited to NARF and board meetings, however. He was also on President Obama’s first transition team on Indian Affairs within the Department of Interior. In that capacity, he informed the President on important issues regarding Native Americans and work that could be done.
Attorney Echohawk’s work has received multiple accolades. He was awarded the Mary G. Ross prize, which is given to an American of Indian heritage who has brought attention to the contributions by Native Americans to the development of American Society. In addition, he was listed by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 most powerful lawyers in America for his accomplishments in advocating Native American interests.
As the first graduate of University of New Mexico’s law program to train Native American graduates, he has had monumental impact on Indian rights. He has been an advocate like few others in this country for Native Americans. His work may one day send him to a federal bench, if desires expressed by former President Obama continue to have salience in future administrations.
I interviewed Attorney Echohawk in order to gain a deeper insight into his life, work, and thinking.
Nallbani: Was there a defining moment when you realized that being an activist and institution-builder—specifically working with the Native American Rights Fund—was the work you wanted and needed to do? What role did your educational career play in preparing you for this journey or in shaping your anti-colonial sentiment?
Echohawk: My defining moment was when I went to law school at the University of New Mexico School of Law starting in 1967. The federal Office of Economic Opportunity had just contracted out to the Law School a program to provide scholarships to Native Americans to go to law school in an effort to increase the low number of Native American lawyers. To the credit of that Law School faculty, they put together some of the first law school course offerings ever on federal Indian law. The Indian law students who took these courses had not been aware of the rights we had under federal Indian law. We realized that our tribal leaders were not really aware of this either. It peaked my interest. I decided that I wanted to assist the tribes in somehow accessing their legal rights.
Nallbani: What steps did you take to evolve the organization into what it is today? On what skills, values, and lessons did you draw most heavily? Have you had any indispensable allies or collaborators in this work? What do you think was most essential in achieving the successes you have had?
Echohawk: The Native American Rights Fund evolved out of the federal legal services program that was also started by the Office of Economic Opportunity to provide legal assistance to poor people who could not afford lawyers. Some of these programs were located on Indian reservations. The legal services lawyers there also discovered federal Indian law in their legal research and started bringing cases that successfully asserted Indian rights under federal Indian law. Only a few reservations had these programs, so a national program to bring legal assistance to all the tribes was needed. The Native American Rights Fund was started and I got a job with them right after I graduated from law school. Indispensable allies and collaborators in this work were Indian lawyers, legal services lawyers, and Native American leaders who saw the potential in asserting our rights under federal Indian law. Working together in the Indian cultural ways and making good legal arguments was most essential to our success.
Nallbani: In An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that moving beyond a settler-colonial history in this country would require honoring the treaties the U.S made with Native American nations, by restoring all sacred sites, including most federally-held parks, and all sacred items, as well as payment of reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native American nations. Do you agree with this solution? If not, what would you argue for and work toward instead?
Echohawk: I agree with what Roxanne wrote. We have worked as best we could using the law to enforce the treaties, restore sacred sites and sacred items, and secure federal funds that have helped reconstruct and expand Native American nations.
Nallbani: I have learned that different indigenous nations and organizations take different approaches to the U.S. government. In your work, have the local, state, or federal government given you the most resistance? Which one, if any, was the most helpful in your efforts? What kind of resistance did you encounter and what do you think was its cause?
Echohawk: We have encountered resistance from local, state, and federal governments over the last forty-eight years of our existence depending upon the politics of the time, but the resistance has gradually waned as our Native American rights cases were successful and those governments learned and adjusted to that. It was mainly the lack of knowledge and understanding of Native American rights under federal Indian law that was the cause of resistance. Inter-governmental relationships today are much better, but there are still some political problems from time to time.
Nallbani: What do you see as the central goals of the Native American Rights Fund? Do you consider it as engaged in a domestic and/or global struggle? What have been your biggest victories to date? What have been some of the biggest obstacles you faced? What enabled you to persevere in the face of these challenges?
Echohawk: The Native American Rights Fund engages domestically to enforce Native American rights under federal Indian law, but we also utilize international law to support our legal arguments domestically. We have had many victories asserting our rights as sovereign governments, protecting and securing our homelands and natural resources, promoting our rights to our cultures and religions and other basic human rights, holding the federal government accountable to their trust responsibilities to us, and developing Indian law and educating the public about our rights. Our biggest obstacle has been the general ignorance of the public and their officials to our legal and political rights, but our people have a cultural tradition of perseverance.
Nallbani: You currently serve on many boards with which you have been active for several decades. Have you witnessed a change in overall commitment to the issues facing Native Americans on the part of non-indigenous people and organizations? Have you seen changes in the orientation and character of indigenous leaders who work with boards like these? If younger generations of Native Americans have become involved in these organizations, is how they participate distinctive?
Echohawk: As I have described, over the years I have witnessed a positive change in the overall commitment to Native American issues on the part of non-indigenous people and organizations as our rights have been recognized legally and politically. Our indigenous leaders now recognize that we all must continually work to educate the public at every opportunity about Native American legal and political status under federal and international law. Younger generations of Native Americans come to realize that they must prepare themselves to carry on this work when their time to lead comes. Every one of our generations has had to deal with this since 1492 and their turn is coming.
Tomor Nallbani is a senior at the University of Connecticut majoring in Political Science with Honors. He is currently involved in a research position with the university and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. His academic endeavors, as well as work priorities, include applying to law school in the Southern California region where he is considering a focus on critical race studies. His passion for equality and fairness are the driving forces behind his pursuits and he plans to be an advocate for all who directly or indirectly are impacted by societal injustices. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org