The U.S. government was on the verge of eradicating Indian country—then John Echohawk came along

Published in 2007 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine

By Joel Warner on March 9, 2007

John Echohawk doesn’t talk about himself in the grandiose terms others do. He doesn’t say much about how The National Law Journal has named him one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the country; or how the American Bar Association has proclaimed him a “Human Rights Hero”; or how the Center of the American West recently presented him the Wallace Stegner Award, a prize that has honored luminaries ranging from Terry Tempest Williams to John Nichols; or how Patty Limerick, the chair of the Center of the American West, calls him “one of the most significant figures in Western American history.”

Instead, he sits back in his chair at the Native American Rights Fund, the legal organization he runs in Boulder, looks you in the eye and says in his gravel-filled voice that the only honor that truly matters to him is the honor that’s finally been given to his people: recognition.
“In general, Native American law is much more recognized now than it was in 1970,” he says. “Then we were teetering on termination. Now it’s generally accepted that there are federal, state and tribal governments. We’ve come a long way.”
Then he’s quiet, displaying the diplomatic reserve that former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt labeled a “charisma of silence.” The rest of the story Echohawk won’t tell you, but you can get it by talking to any of the hundreds of people he’s impacted over the years. Each will say the same thing: Without Echohawk, much of the Indian legal revolution may never have happened.
Echohawk’s revolutionary tendencies began long before his lengthy hair turned silver. The first seeds were sewn when this young boy from Farmington, N.M., heard stories of how an expansion-hungry federal government relegated his tribe, the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, to smaller and smaller parcels of land. The seeds began to grow when Echohawk accompanied his father on his land-surveying trips to nearby Navajo, Ute and Apache reservations, places where people eked out a meager living at the whim of Washington bureaucrats. And they came to full bloom when he witnessed Congress’ officially sanctioned “termination policy” toward Native Americans—legally dismantling the tribes, one by one, out of existence.
“We were, as a people, pretty well at the mercy of the federal government. Whatever they wanted to do with us, they did with us,” he says. “Whenever they felt like it, the government would pass a law eliminating a tribe. They would take the land and send a check and send the people to the city and that was it. They weren’t Indians anymore. Each tribe was just waiting for their turn to get terminated.”
Times were so disheartening that when Echohawk, at the urging of his teachers, applied to law school at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in 1967 and was told the school dean wanted to meet with him, he immediately assumed the worst. No matter that he was a good student, a football star and president of his high school class; if the dean wanted to see him, he must be in trouble. Quite the contrary. The dean told him there were only about a dozen Native American lawyers nationwide. That was going to change, the dean said, thanks to a new government-sponsored UNM law scholarship program for American Indians—an innovative program that wanted him as one of its first students.
Echohawk’s resulting legal education stretched far beyond the classroom. To create the nation’s first Indian law curriculum, UNM professors and students buried themselves in antiquated American Indian treaties—and discovered treaty rights that had long been ignored. At the same time, the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, as part of the War on Poverty, sent lawyers to tribal land, where they began winning cases for reservation members. To top it off, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was tearing down discrimination in the South.
For Echohawk, it amounted to one big wake-up call.
“What we saw in front of us was the power of law,” he says. “Our tribes had a lot of legal rights that were going unenforced and unaddressed. The Indian treaties were the supreme law of the land, but we couldn’t use them because we didn’t have lawyers. That’s where the idea of an organization came into being, a national organization that could provide legal representation to tribes all over the country.”
Echohawk and his colleagues founded that organization in 1970. They called it NARF: the Native American Rights Fund.
In an old fraternity house that sits in the midst of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s party-hardy Hill district, in creaky hallways and rooms adorned with Southwestern décor and Indian artwork, 13 lawyers and a small support staff run NARF, by all accounts the most successful Indian legal organization in the country. Their cases usually involve obscure treaties and massive amounts of land and money, and take years to complete. This is where Echohawk has spent the last 37 years of his life, first as a staff lawyer, then as executive director. It’s the only job he ever wanted.
“A determination to work for Indian people is something that has always burned brightly in him,” says David Getches, NARF’s first executive director, who is now dean of CU’s law school. “I don’t think there has ever been a day of his life that he has doubted it.”
The work hasn’t always been easy. When NARF was launched, Echohawk and his compatriots were considered naïve radicals—even by many of the tribal governments they wanted to help. “Some people said, ‘You are crazy, you can’t have Indian tribes into the 21st century,’” says Echohawk.
NARF quickly proved its detractors wrong. In the early 1970s, Echohawk and his colleagues went to Washington, D.C., and demanded that Congress restore the tribal status of the Menominee Indians, a Wisconsin tribe that had been legislatively dismantled. To everyone’s amazement, Congress acquiesced, reversing the Menominee’s termination status. It was a watershed moment. Soon all of the dozens of terminated tribes were officially restored from extinction—thereby establishing the idea of Indian self-determination.
“We can continue to exist as a nation,” explains Echohawk. “Indian tribes are sovereigns. Their sovereignty predates the sovereignty of the federal government. A basic concept in Indian law is that everything comes from the treaties between two nations. States have no jurisdiction on our land. We govern ourselves.”
This idea was groundbreaking, allowing NARF members to fight for Indian rights that had long been ignored. Using long-overlooked treaties, they helped establish that state governments could not tax reservation members. Partnering with the federal government, they successfully argued that Indian nations had autonomous control over their own fisheries and other natural resources. They compelled cultural institutions to return bodies and goods that had been taken from Indian burial sites. And they convinced Congress to pass laws protecting religious freedom on the reservations. It became customary for a half-dozen or more Indian cases to crop up every term in the U.S. Supreme Court—cases NARF usually won.
“It’s like all these issues had been swept under the rug for so long, and all of a sudden they were all coming out,” remembers Echohawk. “There was basically a legal revolution in Indian country.”
While Echohawk is known for his razor-sharp, encyclopedic legal mind, he’s never the lead counsel in NARF’s cases. Most of his work takes place outside the courtroom. He’s a team leader, a consensus builder, a long-term visionary—and the national voice of Indian law.
“John has acquired a very rare kind of stature,” says Charles Wilkinson, CU Indian law professor and former NARF staff member. “Because of his plain-speaking directness, the fact that his word is gold and the fact that he is held in such high regard in Indian country, he’s a person who is able to speak at the top levels of state and federal government about the biggest issues.”
There are few, for example, who could successfully tackle the emotionally and politically fraught issue of Indian-reserved water rights. For decades, Western tribes have been battling for top priority for local water usage in their regions, generating massive state cases involving thousands of claimants. Settling these cases seemed impossible—until Echohawk got involved. Now 18 of these water rights cases have been settled and 22 more are in negotiation, with NARF having played a direct role in many of them.
“Ask any recent governor of a Western state, and they know John Echohawk and they better understand the issue of federal reserved water rights thanks to his leadership,” says Getches.
Lately Echohawk’s diplomatic tact—not to mention his nerves of steel—have been put to good use. Eleven years ago, NARF filed Cobell v. Babbitt, a class action lawsuit alleging that the federal government mismanaged the trust funds of 500,000 Indians and now owes the beneficiaries several billion dollars. Echohawk calls the case the most challenging of his career, one that has strained relations between the Indian nations and Washington, D.C. No matter, he says. He’s not giving up.
“The tribes want their day in court,” he says.
Hardly a week goes by without Echohawk hitting the road. One day he’s in Kansas telling tribes about pending federal litigation, the next he’s in New York, raising money for NARF, and then he’s in California, meeting with environmental organizations. He doesn’t get to spend much time with his many siblings, a prestigious clan of lawyers, including a professor and a former state attorney general (Larry Echohawk of Idaho), not to mention his two children and three grandchildren. And, of course, it’s a rare day when he gets to attend a home game of his beloved Denver Broncos. But that’s OK, he says, flashing a smile. On the road he sees the impact of his labors firsthand.
“I get to see my clients around Indian country,” he says. “I see their determination to protect their tribal existence and natural resources and human rights. And it’s always a joy to see them when we win, to see what a change it makes in Indian country.”
Others, too, are noticing changes in Indian country, namely invigorated tribal governments and money-making casinos. Isn’t, some wonder, NARF’s job just about finished? Isn’t it OK that NARF’s fundraising sources are drying up, that the organization has had to slash its legal staff? Aren’t the tribes stable and prospering?
To such questions, Echohawk shakes his head. “Not everybody is a millionaire in Indian country because of gambling,” he says gently, as if he’s just reminding you of something you knew all along. “Even though we have made a lot of progress, there is still a lot of need out there.” In fact, he adds, NARF’s job is getting harder all the time. “The makeup of the Supreme Court has changed and now it is more conservative. We don’t fare as well as we used to. It’s getting to be a dangerous place to go.”
Plus, he adds, there’s the matter of preparing the next generation of Indian lawyers, teaching them about their treaties and rights, impressing upon them the power of Indian law, making sure they get the same caliber education he received. After all, someone has to be ready to fill Echohawk’s very sizable shoes.

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