John Echohawk

Protecting the Law of the Land

Recorded: October 15, 2015

Native American, John Echohawk, tells his story of how and why he went to law school and how he became one of the best advocates for Native American rights in the country.

John Echohawk is an attorney and a co-founder of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), and their Executive Director since 1977. John is a powerful voice in cases supporting Indian rights throughout the U.S. and has won numerous awards for his achievements.

John Echohawk is a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, has served as the Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) since 1977. The first graduate of a special law program for Native Americans at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, he has become a leading force in Indian law and policy and has been involved in cases supporting Indian rights all over the country. As one of the most sought after experts on Indian issues, he is often asked to serve on special commissions that will affect tribes everywhere. He has won numerous awards over the years for his devotion to improving the lives of Indian tribes and individuals.

I’m a lawyer representing Indian tribes. I’m the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund or the National Indian Legal Defense Fund and we’ve been in existence 45 years providing legal representation to our tribes, and native organizations, individuals in the most important cases across the country where they don’t have lawyers. And since most of our people are poor, we have a lot of clients.

I went out looking for a scholarship to go to law school when I graduated from college and it just so happened that the Federal Government at that time is part of the war on poverty, had an Indian Affairs office and the office thought “What can we do to help change poverty? Indian country is the worst of the worst.” And they looked around at all kinds of things, did all kinds of things and one of the things they settled on was, “We don’t have any professionals. We don’t have any lawyers, doctors; let’s give scholarships to our people to go to law school and to go to medical school.” They offered me a scholarship to go to law school, so away I went and there were other native students who got these scholarships too. We started to the credit of the law professors where we went at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, they put together one of the first courses ever taught in law school about federal Indian law and Indian treaties, and law relating to our people. We saw that we had all these rights, but we wondered how come it’s not like this back on the reservations?

Huey Johnson:   Yeah.

And we learned about the legal process, and it doesn’t matter what the law is. If you don’t have lawyers to advocate for us, then you don’t have any rights, and our people are the poorest of the poor, they have no money for lawyers. So we need to go out and start a nonprofit, raise money, hire lawyers and send those out to the reservations and start these Treaty Rights cases, so that’s what we did.

I’ve been involved in a lot of cases over the years, that has really changed the history of our people, and the history of this country, really. One of our early cases was for tribes in the Northwest. They had 1855 Treaties that promised them to the right to continue to fish the way they always had for the salmon in common with the citizens of the state, but the state always interpreted that to mean, “You’ve got to get a fishing license just like everybody else. You’ve got no special rights.” And so we took that to court, and showed all the history and brought forward the understanding that the tribal leaders had when they negotiated that treaty in 1855 and that is they owned everything, they had everything, and they agreed to share that with the state. That put treaties on the map. Treaties are not ancient history, they’re the law of the land, they’re enforceable. The treaties are made between sovereigns, tribes are a sovereign nations. They believe in the public trust for Native people and doing things for the benefit of the people. That’s one of the reasons why I serve on the board of the Grand Canyon Trust, and also the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to reach out to the environmental community on these natural resource issues, and build alliances. I work together with them as best we can because we’re basically coming from the same place. We believe in this creation, we know that we’ve got to respect it, we revere it, and that’s what we try to do, and we ought to join forces and that’s what we’ve been doing.