Native American Rights Fund (NARF)

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Native American Rights Fund (NARF)





Since its founding in 1970, the presence of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) in Indian country in the United States has become very evident. But the continuing need in Indian country for creative legal assistance to enable Indian tribes, as sovereign governments, to regain control over their resources and their destiny is equally evident. Permeating native relations with the dominant society are 400 years of persistent racism, resulting in a complex modern agenda for NARF that includes, among other things: (1) Protecting human health and environmental integrity for Indian people on Indian lands; (2) safeguarding their children through the improvement of Indian education; (3) improving the structure of tribal communities so they can provide economic infrastructures and more responsive governments; (4) continuing the struggle to insure their rights to practice their religious beliefs and protect their cultures in the face of religious bigotry from the dominant culture; and (5) combating racism directly in such matters as voting practices, environmental degradation of Indian lands and resources, and bias in the judicial system.

Over the years, NARF has learned to listen hard and long to its clients, to present all the options open to them, and to help them make legal decisions based on the best information possible. During its history, NARF has represented more than 200 tribes in thirty-one states in such areas as tribal restoration and recognition, jurisdiction, land claims, water rights, hunting and fishing rights, the protection of Indian religious freedom, Indian child welfare, and voting rights. In addition, one of its greatest distinguishing attributes has been its ability to bring quality ethical legal representation to tribes.


Modern Indian law and policy began to come to life in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when a consensus was reached among tribal leaders, young Indian professionals, and traditionalists. There was no formal declaration or stated agenda. Indeed, on one level there was nothing more than a few seemingly unconnected meetings, protests, and musings on the shores of Puget Sound, in the red-rock landscape of the Southwest, on the high plains of the Dakotas, in the backwoods of Wisconsin, and on the farms of Oklahoma.

These superficially unrelated stirrings were tightly and irrevocably bound together by an indelible reverence for the aboriginal past, an appreciation of the consequences of five centuries of contact with Europeans, and by desperation concerning the future of Indian societies as discrete units within the larger society.

An implicit oath of blood was made during the termination era of the 1950s, when the United States severed its government-to-government relationship, based on a legal trust relationship with American Indian tribes. Native Americans felt the federal policy of termination had to be slowed, halted, and then reversed. In a larger sense, the most persistent aspects of federal Indian policy since the mid-nineteenth-century—the assimilation of Indians, reduction of the Indian land and resource base, and the phasing out of tribal governments—had to be stopped and reversed. Even more generally, the tribes had to become more proactive in dealing with U.S. government policy.

The Indian initiatives would be premised on tribalism. In the 1832 Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion had carved out a special, separate constitutional status for Indian tribes. Within their boundaries, tribes had jurisdiction and the states could not intrude. They were recognized in their own right as sovereigns, a status that left the tribes with authority over their resources, economies, disputes, families, and values.

To outsiders, it might seem astonishing that reservation Indians know of concepts such as “sovereignty” and “jurisdiction.” But they do, and they did in the 1950s and 1960s. The reason for this is simple: The tribal leaders bargained to reaffirm these things when treaties were made. Generation after generation, tribal elders passed down information about the talks at treaty time and about the fact that American law, at least in Marshall’s time, had been faithful to those talks.

It was not through choice that modern Indian people have placed so much reliance on federal law. But there was no real alternative. Outside forces were bent on obtaining Indian land, water, fish, and tax revenues, and on assimilating the culture of Indian people, especially the children. Underlying this current was racism. There could be no internal development or harmony until the outside forces and racism were put at rest.

The program conceived of at the end of the termination era was successful in many ways. In this new century, however, the forces of termination and the challenges to tribal sovereignty have once again reared their heads, riding on the currents of racism. For every victory, a new challenge to tribal sovereignty arises from state and local governments, Congress, or the courts. The continuing lack of understanding, and in some cases blatant racism and lack of respect for the sovereign attributes of Indian nations, has made it necessary for the struggle to continue.


In the 1960s, the U.S. government began a widespread effort to address some of the social ills affecting the nation. As part of the “War on Poverty,” the nation began to provide legal representation to the disadvantaged. Those running these programs came to realize that the legal problems of their Indian clients were, for the most part, governed and controlled by a little known area of law—“Indian Law”—which was driven by treaties, court decisions, and federal statutes, regulations, and administrative rulings. They also found that few attorneys outside of the legal services system were willing to represent Indians, and those who did generally worked on a contingency basis, only handling cases with anticipated monetary settlements. Thus, many issues would not get to court.

During this same period, the Ford Foundation, which had already assisted in the development of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, began meeting with California Indian Legal Services (CILS) to discuss the possibility of creating a similar project dedicated to serving all of the nation’s indigenous people. CILS had already established a reputation for taking on Indian legal cases. The Ford Foundation awarded CILS a planning grant in 1970 and start-up funding to launch the Native American Rights Fund in 1971.

As a pilot project of CILS in 1970, NARF attorneys traveled throughout the country to find out firsthand from the Indian communities what legal issues they were dealing with. They also began a search for a permanent location for the project, which was initially housed at CILS’s main office in Berkeley, California. In 1971, NARF selected its new home and relocated to Boulder, Colorado.

An eleven-member all-Indian Steering Committee (now a thirteen-member Board of Directors) was selected by the CILS Board of Trustees to govern the fund’s activities. Individuals were chosen (as they continue to be in the early twenty-first century) based on their involvement with and knowledge of Indian affairs and issues, as well as their tribal affiliation.

NARF continued to grow at a rapid pace over the next several years. In 1971, the project opened its first regional office in Washington, D.C. An office close to the

center of the federal government would prove critical in future interaction with the White House, Congress, and federal administrative agencies. The Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded NARF start-up funding in 1972 for the creation of the National Indian Law Library, a national repository for Indian legal materials and resources. More than ten years later, in 1984, NARF established its second branch office, in Anchorage, Alaska, where it could take on the Alaska Native issues of tribal sovereignty and subsistence hunting and fishing rights.


One of the initial responsibilities of NARF’s first Steering Committee was to develop priorities that would guide the fund in its mission to preserve and enforce the legal rights of Native Americans. The committee developed five priorities that continue to lead NARF in the early 2000s: (1) The preservation of tribal existence; (2) the protection of tribal natural resources; (3) the promotion of Native American human rights; (4) the accountability of governments to Native Americans; and (5) the development of Indian law and educating the public about Indian rights, laws, and issues.

Preservation of Tribal Existence. NARF works to construct the foundations that are necessary to empower tribes so that they can continue to live according to their Native traditions, to enforce their treaty rights, to insure their independence on their homelands, and to protect their inherent sovereignty. Specifically, NARF’s legal representation centers on sovereignty and jurisdiction issues, federal recognition and restoration of tribal status, and economic development. The focus of NARF’s work relates to the preservation and enforcement of the status of tribes as sovereign governments. Jurisdictional conflicts often arise with states, the federal government, and others over tribal sovereignty.

Protection of Tribal Natural Resources. Throughout the process of European conquest and colonization of North America, Indian tribes experienced a steady diminishment of their land base down to a mere 2.3 percent of its original size. There are now approximately 55 million acres of Indian-controlled land in the continental United States and about 44 million acres of Native-owned land in Alaska. An adequate land base and control over natural resources are central components of economic self-sufficiency and self-determination, and as such are vital to the very existence of tribes.

Promotion of Native American Human Rights. Although basic human rights are considered a universal and inalienable entitlement, Native Americans face an ongoing threat of having their rights undermined by the United States government, states, and others who seek to limit these rights. NARF strives to enforce and strengthen laws designed to protect the rights of Native Americans against racism in order to allow them to practice their traditional religion, to use their own language, and to enjoy their culture. NARF also works with tribes to improve education and ensure the welfare of their children, which has often been threatened by long-standing racism. NARF is also active in efforts to negotiate declarations on the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.

Accountability of Governments to Native Americans. Contained within the unique trust relationship between the United States and Indian nations is the inherent duty for all levels of government to recognize and responsibly enforce the many laws and regulations applicable to Indian peoples. Because such laws impact virtually every aspect of tribal life, NARF maintains its involvement in the legal matters pertaining to the accountability of governments to Native Americans.

Development of Indian Law and Educating the Public about Indian Rights, Laws, and Issues. Protecting Indian rights depends upon establishing favorable court precedents, distributing information and law materials, encouraging and fostering Indian legal education, and forming alliances with Indian law practitioners and other Indian organizations. NARF recognizes the importance of the development of Indian law and continues to manage and participate in a variety of projects specifically aimed at achieving this goal.

NARF strives to protect the legal and sovereign rights of tribes and Native people within the American legal system. This effort certainly could not exist without the contribution of the thousands of individuals who have offered their knowledge, courage, and vision to help guide NARF. Of equal importance, NARF’s financial contributors have graciously provided the resources to make these efforts possible. NARF will thus continue to combat racism against Native Americans and pursue its mission of securing the sovereignty and right to self-determination to which all Native American peoples are entitled.


Native American Rights Fund. Available from

Mark C. Tilden

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Native American Rights Fund (NARF)

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Native American Rights Fund (NARF)