The other day, I received some photos from the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) that I had asked for to go with a story on their 40th Anniversary. I particularly wanted black and white photos as my own personal preference. There's something fascinating about telling a story in two toned images. The imagination seems to fill in blanks and hues.
The photos are fascinating. They hold an instance in time (bell-bottom britches through out) of the awakening of a particular genre: When Indians became lawyers and simultaneously our modern day warriors. What struck me is that while in black and white, the images still looked familiar, like pictures of Indians.
The era was the 1970s. I was barely school age when the Native legal advocacy group, NARF, searched for a place to hang its shingle. Moved from Berkeley, CA to Boulder CO, the group began thanks to start-up grants from respectable corporations. One of the founders, attorney John Echohawk, told me that the 1970s was a unique era. To me it was the decade when the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Soul Train were born.
We had come out of the assimilation holocaust only to swallowed up in the jaws of the failed U.S. policy of Termination. This was the period when the U.S. government decreed some of the tribes no longer qualified for sovereign nation status. One can only imagine.
Meanwhile, a growing sense of unrest stirred underneath the slash and burn remnants of our past and our identity. At the time, I think I was more concerned with Saturday morning cartoons and bowl of cereal than with being native. But there it was, Indians began to re-grow their braids and re-embrace their cultural traditions.
Echohawk and company began first as a legal aid service (California Indian Legal Services) in CA. Indians were staggering from the frontal assaults raining on us after the conquering nation made us wards. Worcester vs. Georgia (1832) had stated that tribes were sovereign nations within their boundaries that even states could not trespass.
The beauty part of this is that these things were premised on the treaties that the old chiefs had negotiated. The treaties still held heft and Echohawk and other attorneys of the day were willing to wager that in the courtroom. I asked him to name the most memorable cases he had been a part of.
Echohawk told me there were simply countless cases that flashed through his memory. But he named several that involved winning back recognition for tribes that had been stung by Termination (capitalized for tyranny's sake). Next came the case wherein the Northwest Pacific Coast tribes had their treatied fishing rights upheld in the Puget Sound.
Talking to this attorney was a little like visiting with Lewis and Clark. The things he described to me were as far away yet as impacting on my life as the moon. NARF had cleared a path out of a jungle.
Restoring what was once stripped from tribes seemed a bit of a miracle to me. The foundation of what we now enjoy, words like sovereignty, were once buried and made to give up the ghost as Indians moved to new cities (ala Relocation Policy). For the most part, our self image had been made to shrink wrap around the Anglo concept.
It took a few generations (we are brilliant at adaption) for us to grasp the plow shares of education and produce our own professionals. So it was for Indian attorneys. These first few Indian lawyers were surely a bit of a phenomenon. They had weathered what was once a hostile educational environment and more.
I learned that when Echohawk began "lawyering" that only a handful of Indian attorneys were around. Today, those numbers have grown to over 2,000. Indian law has is now a venerated field. Today, the tribe without legal counsel has become a rarity. And the cost of being a lawyer is daunting, at a state law school, a debt of $100,000 is easily assured.
Thankfully, though, some tribes help their brightest through school with various incentives that were made possible by a string of reactions that began with chiefs sitting on muddy banks, flat plains or rolling hills. I am coming to realize that life is a wonderful string of accidents woven together and made to show the handiwork of one powerful, wise being.
They say that when Custer met his end at the Little Big Horn that many tribes had gathered together to wage a tactical masterpiece. Their collective efforts made that day a success. So it is in the legal battlefields as NARF vows to bring more Indian issues cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
So as NARF looks to celebrate 40 years of speaking up in a court of law, we can thank-in part -the Indian student who had tenacity to make it through law school. Through NARF's efforts, the voice to ensure the indigenous rights of tribal people by tribal people rings clear.