By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services


Those who still think that Martin Luther King’s message of social justice and equality for all people applies only to members of King’s own race must never have heard of John Ecohawk.

Ecohawk, a member of the Pawnee Tribe and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, has been a leading legal and political advocate for the sovereign rights of Native American tribes for more than three decades—thanks to the influence of King.

“Dr. King was a great inspiration to me when I was in law school back in the late 1960s,” Ecohawk told a campus audience Jan. 24 in the Michigan Union. “I had watched the civil rights demonstrations on television, and when I got into law school in 1967, I really saw the implications of what was happening in the civil rights movement led by Dr. King for our Native American people.”

As a law student at the University of New Mexico, Ecohawk studied the legal and political history of Native Americans and became fascinated with early U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with Native American tribes and their rights.

He said that many people still don’t know that cases the high court decided in the early 1830s declared that Indian tribal nations are distinct governmental entities with sovereign authority over their own affairs, subject to U.S. federal law.

“This principle of tribal sovereignty was one that captured our imaginations, and we saw great potential in enforcing this legal right in the political climate of the 1960s,” Ecohawk said. “It was a controversial avenue to pursue, because the federal government’s policy relating to Indian tribes at that time was one of terminating our tribes, doing away with our relationship with the federal government and placing us under state jurisdiction—all against our will without our consent.

“Inspired by Dr. King, who was advancing the civil rights agenda of equality under the laws of this country, we thought that we could also use the laws to advance our Indianship, to live as tribes in our territories governed by our own laws under the principles of tribal sovereignty that had been with us ever since 1831. We believed that we could fight for a policy of self-determination that was consistent with U.S. law and that we could govern our own affairs, define our own ways and continue to survive in this society.”

In 1970, Ecohawk and others did just that by organizing the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which was modeled after the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. For the past 30 years, NARF has served as a political advocate and legal defender of Native American tribal nations in cases pertaining to tribal sovereignty and treaty enforcement; land, water and fishing rights; religious and cultural freedoms; and, among others, issues of taxation, gaming and Indian trust monies.

Ecohawk said that NARF has had a great deal of success in protecting Native American rights, not only in the courts, but also in the halls of Congress and in the Oval Office. In fact, every U.S. president beginning with Richard Nixon has recognized the Native American tribal right to self-determination.

Despite a multitude of legislative victories, such as the 1975 Self-Determination Act that transferred much authority over tribal affairs from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to the tribal nations themselves and many successful Supreme Court battles in the 1980s, NARF has encountered an increasingly restrictive political climate in recent years—thanks to a more conservative Supreme Court and a Republican-controlled Congress.

Ecohawk said he is hopeful that new U.S. President George W. Bush, a Republican, will support Native American causes, much like his predecessors did over the past 30 years, although he realizes that with the current political makeup of the three branches of federal government, it could be an uphill battle for tribal nations.

“Our people are still the worst off in the country,” Ecohawk said. “We’re the poorest of the poor—worst health, worst education, worst income, worst everything. We’ve made strides from year to year, but we still have a long way to go. We’re hopeful that our economic conditions will improve.

“We will continue to assert our rights and try to educate people, to tell them who we are and that we’ll keep fighting for these principles, which are consistent with Martin Luther King’s principles and fighting for justice for all people.”

Ecohawk’s talk was sponsored by the Native American Law Student Association, the Native American Student Association and the MLK Symposium Planning Committee.

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