The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) is a public interest law firm that specializes in Native American tribal law and representation. Since its founding in 1970, NARF has been one of the most prominent organizations involved in litigation affecting Native American tribes and the development of American Indian law.
Founding and History
In 1970, California Indian Legal Services, a federally funded legal program that assisted Native Americans in California, started a program to address the purported inadequacies of government-funded legal services in dealing with issues of Native American law. The program received funding from the Ford Foundation, and in 1971, the program became independently incorporated as the Native American Rights Fund. NARF later relocated to Colorado to be more centrally located. 1
In fiscal year 2019, NARF reported slightly over $13 million in revenue, $10.6 million of which came from contributions and grants and $1.8 million of which came from investment income. NARF also reported $12.7 million in expenses, of which $630,813 was disbursed as grants and $6 million was paid as staff salary and benefits. The organization ended the fiscal year with $44.4 million in net assets. 2
NARF classifies its activities into five priority areas.
Preserve Tribal Existence
According to NARF, its foremost priority is to preserve the existence of independent Native American tribes by helping to maintain tribal government-to-government relationships with the United States and by working to secure federal recognition of currently unrecognized or terminated tribes. 3
NARF has helped to secure federal recognition of several tribes, including the Pamunkey tribe in Virginia and the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana. In the latter case, NARF represented the tribe for several decades to seek recognition through the federal bureaucratic process and later secured recognition for the tribe through Congress. 4 5
Tribal Environmentalist Projects
There are over 56 million acres of land held in trust by the federal government for both tribes and individuals. NARF has been involved in many cases that deal with legal ownership and rights over such lands, including the dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline. NARF has represented Native American interests against the construction of the pipeline, working as counsel to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and the Gros Ventre Tribe involved in the dispute. 6 7
Promoting Tribal Governance
NARF is heavily involved in promoting and securing tribal governance over members’ education. NARF has also facilitated reconciliation projects between Native American individuals and groups who were adversely affected by federally run Native American boarding schools in the 19th and 20th century. NARF has also been extensively involved in securing the repatriation of Native American remains to tribal burial grounds. 8
Since the beginning of the 19th century, the federal government has been the trustee for recognized tribal land and resources. NARF reports that there are around 3,300 such accounts. NARF has alleged historic government mismanagement of the accounts and involved tribes in protracted legal battles with the federal government in search of reparations. During the Obama administration, the federal government decided to engage in government-to-government settlement negotiation with the over 100 tribes that had filed lawsuits over the issue of federal accounts. NARF has represented over half of the tribes involved and secured settlement agreements for 35 of them. 9
Develop Indian Law
NARF has been heavily involved in the development of American Indian law on both the federal and state level, while also working to educate the public about Indian law and tribal rights through education initiatives. NARF has provided training to practitioners of Indian law and has also led the Tribal Supreme Court Project to streamline and effectively strategize for cases involving tribal law that are likely to reach the United States Supreme Court. NARF also maintains the National Indian Law Library, established in 1972 to house NARF’s extensive collection of American Indian law resources. 10
John E. Echohawk has been with NARF since its founding in 1970 and has been NARF executive director since 1977. He is a member of the Pawnee tribe. The National Law Journal recognized Echohawk as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the country for his involvement with Indian law and Native American issues. Echohawk sits on the boards of several institutions, including the American Indian Resources Institute, the Association of American Indian Affairs, and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise. 11
Echohawk has contributed almost exclusively to Democratic candidates and to the left-of-center political action committee ActBlue, with the exception of a $1,000 donation to the Friends of John McCain PAC in 2003. 12
- “About Us.” NARF.org. Accessed January 14, 2021. https://www.narf.org/about-us/.
- Native American Rights Foundation, IRS (Form 990), 2019, Part 1.
- Native American Rights Fund. “Preserve Tribal Existence.” NARF.org. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/our-work/preservation-tribal-existence/.
- “Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia.” Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/cases/pamunkey-tribe-virginia/.
- “Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana – Federal Recognition.” NARF.org. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/cases/little-shell-tribe-chippewa-indians-montana/.
- “Protect Tribal Natural Resources.” NARF.org. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/our-work/protection-tribal-natural-resources/.
- “Rosebud Sioux and Fort Belknap File Suit against Keystone XL.” NARF.org. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/cases/keystone/.
- “Promoting Human Rights for Native Americans – NARF.” NARF.org. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/our-work/promotion-human-rights/.
- “Hold Governments Accountable to Native Americans.” NARF.org. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/our-work/accountability-governments/.
- “Develop Indian Law and Educate the Public about Indian Rights, Laws, and Issues.” NARF.org. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/our-work/development-indian-law-educating-public-indian-rights-laws-issues/.
- Native American Rights Fund. “John E. Echohawk.” NARF.org Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.narf.org/profiles/john-e-echohawk/.
- “Individual Contributors: John Echohawk.” FEC.gov. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.fec.gov/data/receipts/individual-contributions/.