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Native American Rights Fund
History and Background

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) is a non-profit 501c(3) organization that provides legal representation and technical assistance to Indian tribes, organizations and individuals nationwide - a constituency that often lacks access to the justice system. NARF focuses on applying existing laws and treaties to guarantee that national and state governments live up to their legal obligations.

The staff of NARF, many of whom are Native American, use their understanding of Indian legal issues to assist tribes in negotiating with individuals, companies and governmental agencies. With credibility built over thirty-five years, NARF has become a respected consultant to policy makers and others engaged in drafting legislation. As a consensus builder, NARF works with religious, civil rights, and other Native American organizations to shape the laws that will help assure the civil and religious rights of all Native Americans. This emphasis helps tribes in all fifty states to develop strong self-governance, sound economic development, prudent natural resources management and positive social development.

Over the past three decades Indian law has dramatically changed. It has become a recognized specialty with a well documented body of statues and case law. In the 1970''s and the early 1980''s, courts were generally receptive to Indian rights cases. However, since the mid to late 1980''s, an increasingly conservative federal bench has made Indian rights cases more difficult to win. Combined with the huge cost of litigation - in time and in money - this means NARF and its Indian clients are always attuned to opportunities for negotiation, consensus, and settlement.

The Native American Rights Fund is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado with branch offices in Washington, D.C. and Anchorage, Alaska.

NARF is governed by a volunteer board of directors composed of thirteen Native Americans from different tribes throughout the country with a variety of expertises in Indian matters. A staff of fifteen attorneys handles about fifty major cases at any given time, with most of the cases taking several years to resolve. Cases are accepted on the basis of their breadth and potential importance in setting precedents and establishing important principles of Indian law.

How NARF Has Helped

Throughout its history, NARF has impacted tens of thousands of Indian people in its work for more than 250 tribes. Some examples of the results include

Protecting and establishing the inherent sovereignty of tribes
Obtaining official tribal recognition for numerous Indian tribes
Helping tribes continue their ancient traditions, by protecting their rights to hunt, fish and use the water on their lands
Helping to uphold Native American religious freedom
Assuring the return of remains and burial goods from museums and historical societies for proper and dignified re-burial
Protecting voting rights of Native Americans

 Our History

As part of the war on poverty launched in the mid 1960s under the Office of Economic Opportunity, government funded legal services programs were established around the country to provide legal services to poor and disadvantaged people. Many of these programs were located on or near Indian reservations. As these programs began working with their Indian clients, a common realization soon developed among them that Indians had special legal problems which were, for the most part, governed and controlled by a specialized and little-known area of the law known as "Indian Law" -- a complex body of law composed of hundreds of Indian treaties and court decisions, and thousands of federal Indian statutes, regulations and administrative rulings. As legal services contended with this area of Indian law, they became more aware of its relevance and applicability to the problems of their Indian clients. This was especially so for legal services located on reservations where the presence of trust land, tribal resources and tribal government institutions necessarily involved the most basic tenets of Indian law. Soon, legal services lawyers became involved in various matters with national implications, and it was clear to those working in legal services and to others working for Indian rights that cases involving major national issues of Indian law needed to be handled with the greatest consideration. The idea began to form that a national organization was needed, staffed by Indian advocates with experience and expertise in Indian law and sufficiently funded in order that important Indian cases were not lost or abandoned for lack of funds.

In 1970 with funding from the Ford Foundation, California Indian Legal Services -- one of the federally-funded legal services programs serving California Indians – implemented a pilot project to provide legal services to Indians on a national level. That project became known as the Native American Rights Fund (NARF).

One year later, the Native American Rights Fund separated from California Indian Legal Services and relocated to Boulder, Colorado where it is more centrally located. NARF incorporated separately with an all-Indian Board of Directors, and in a few short years, the Native American Rights Fund grew from a three-lawyer staff to a firm of forty full-time staff members, with fifteen attorneys. That same year, with start-up funding from the Carnegie Corporation, NARF established the National Indian Law Library (NILL) now located at NARF’s main office in Boulder.


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