A quiet revolution

 

Forty-five years ago, John Echohawk, a Pawnee who grew up in New Mexico among Navajos, Hopis, Utes, Apaches, Latinos and Anglos, got in on the ground floor of a revolution. While attending the University of New Mexico, he was encouraged to enter a new program focused on training Indian lawyers.

It was a novel idea in the late 1960s; although the civil rights movement had elevated awareness of the struggles of Natives, “there were only a dozen lawyers” practicing Indian law, recalls Echohawk, who joined the board of High Country News in February. “Today there are over 2,500.”

Fifteen of them work with the Native American Rights Fund, based in Boulder, Colorado, a nonprofit Echohawk has directed since 1977. The blossoming of Indian law has had an enormous impact, he says. It’s brought forgotten tribes federal recognition, protected Native rights to hunting and fishing grounds, and secured tribes’ ability to establish gambling casinos, which have become major economic engines.

But success in the courtroom has also been met with resistance. As the NARF website states, “an increasingly conservative federal bench has made Indian rights cases more difficult to win. Combined with the huge cost of litigation, this means NARF and its Indian clients are always attuned to opportunities for negotiation, consensus and settlement.”

Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet tribal treasurer, surely had all this in mind when she brought a lawsuit in 1996 on behalf of 450,000 plaintiffs against the federal government for mishandling Indian Trust accounts, which hold funds earned from leasing lands owned by tribal members. Though Cobell’s lawyers initially estimated the government had mislaid up to $170 billion since the late 1800s, she and her co-plaintiffs ultimately accepted a $3.4 billion settlement in 2011, shortly before her death.

Executive Director and Publisher Paul Larmer

Each plaintiff received a small payment, but most of the settlement is earmarked for consolidating land owned by individual Indians under tribal ownership. As writer Sierra Crane-Murdoch reports in our cover story, it’s an attempt to remedy a messy and destructive federal policy that divides land allotted to families at the turn of the 19th century among more and more family members with each passing generation. But the fix isn’t getting very far — many tribal members don’t want to sell, and the land “fractionation” policy remains in place. The settlement, in the end, is “little more than a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” writes Crane-Murdoch.

The surgical operation needed to finally close it may be years away. But when it happens you can be sure that the robust Indian law community, plugging away lawsuit by lawsuit, will be a critical factor in fixing this misguided policy and empowering the people who have suffered because of it.

As a colleague of Cobell tells Crane-Murdoch: “(Elouise) used to tell me, ‘Winning money wasn’t the thing. Indians winning a case against the federal government — that’s the point of the whole thing.’ ”

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -