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.’ ”

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