Attorney earns civil rights award

When Walter R. Echo-Hawk II went to work for the Native American Rights Fund, he knew he had a job to do.
It was 1973 and the member of the Pawnee tribe from Pawnee, had just completed the University of New Mexico College of Law.
During the next 36 years, Echo-Hawk would represent Indian tribes and communities across the U.S., Hawaii and Alaska.
He recently returned to his home state with the idea of retiring, but instead became Of Counsel to the Crowe & Dunlevy law firm in Tulsa.
Despite the change, Echo-Hawk’s work was not lost on his colleagues and he was recognized for those efforts with the Sarah T. Hughes Civil Rights Award by the Federal Bar Association. The award is given annually honor a person who has promoted civil and human rights and who exemplifies the spirit and legacy of devoted service and leadership in the cause of equality of civil rights.
‘‘I accepted the award humbly and for all those Indian lawyers who worked with me during those many years,’’ Echo-Hawk said. ‘‘I worked as co-counsel on many projects. I felt that I was just a foot soldier in the legal movement.’’
The Native American Rights Fund or NARF is the equivalent to the NAACP.
Founded in 1970, the Native American Rights Fund is the oldest and largest nonprofit law firm dedicated to asserting and defending the rights of Indian tribes, organizations and individuals nationwide.
NARF’s practice is concentrated in five key areas: The preservation of tribal existence; the protection of tribal natural resources; the promotion of Native American human rights; the accountability of governments to Native Americans; and the development of Indian law and educating the public about Indian rights, laws, and issues.
When Echo-Hawk joined the fledgling organization he became part of a new field of federal Indian law and there were few Indian attorneys on the staff.
Actually, he said, the field of Federal Indian Law is an old one and generally non-Indian attorneys were serving on the Indian Claims Commission.
Commission attorneys generally were filing claims seeking monetary compensation for treaty violations, water rights, and historical wrongs.
But the field was changing. It was in the 1970s at the time of the civil rights that were in full sway. That was when the modern era of Federal Indian Law started evolving.
It was in 1968 and 1969 that Federal Courts were pressured into applying in a modern context the early foundations and principles espoused by Chief Justice John Marshall in the early 1900s, Echo-Hawk said. That was followed early legal victories in the 1970s and early 1980s that established a legal standing and principals for the rise of the modern Indian that is seen today.
The work was carried forward by a generation of very dedicated tribal leaders and attorneys giving rise to the American Indian Sovereignty Movement. Some media commentators compared its significance to when women won the right to vote, the civil rights and environmental movements in American History.
NARF was organized in 1970 by Echo-Hawk’s cousin, John Echo-Hawk who became its executive director. It was an organization that Native Americans could work through and it was the only one of its kind in the country.
‘‘I felt that I could make a difference for Indian tribes when I took that job,’’ Echo-Hawk said.
Work included litigation in federal court and a lot of lobbying for equitable treatment for Native Americans in prisons.
Other litigation involved treaty, water and land rights.
Echo-Hawk is proud of his role in the repatriation of Indian bodies and artifacts that had been looted from burial places and for the religious freedom that earlier had been denied them by the court.
It was gratifying to repatriate the human remains and objects from museums that were taken as far back as the 1850s, he said. Funerary items and sacred objects are part of the cultural property that have been returned to tribal ownership. It was necessary to file claims against museums to effect the return of the remains and artifacts. Cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court for final resolution.
‘‘I also secured passage of both federal and state laws on that subject,’’ Echo-Hawk said.
He helped on three federal laws that he feels are significant in his career.
One was the Natural Museum of American Art in 1989; the Native American Grave Repatriation Act of 1990 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1994.
Actually, the religious freedom act was first passed in 1978, Echo-Hawk said.
Congress found that federal agencies violated the religious activities of the Indians because they either did not know about or understand the impact of the policies they were restricting.
The 1978 law helped protect and preserve the remaining native religions, Echo-Hawk said. A 1990 Supreme Court ruling held the law does not protect the religious use of the Peyote cactus, a plant grown only in the Rio Grande Valley.
Use of Peyote is probably the oldest and most continuously used item of Indian religion in America, he said. Congress responded with the law to reinstate the statutory protection of religious freedom for Indians.
Passage of the grave repatriation act enabled tribes to recover the remains of more than 30,000 ancestors and several hundred thousand funerary objects.
The implementation of the act is going on today, 19 years later, Echo-Hawk said.
The decision to retire and move back to Oklahoma was focused on slowing down just a bit.
Echo-Hawk knew he would remain active because he serves on the board of directors of several organizations as well as the Native Arts and Culture Foundation. In addition, he is a tribal judge on the Pawnee Nation Supreme Court.
One thing led to another and he found himself serving Of Counsel to the Crowe & Dunlevy firm where he assists D. Michael McBride on Indian Tribe and Estate work as well as gaming issues.
Gaming will continue to be a very important part of life for Native Americans in the future, Echo-Hawk said. The activity has brought everyone into unchartered legal territory because of legal requirements. Gaming has provided revenues for tribal activities as well as local public infrastructure that benefits tribal and non-tribal people alike.
‘‘I am deeply satisfied with my legal career,’’ he said. ‘‘I went into law to make a difference in the lives of Native Americans. Along the way I have worked with some of the finest intellectual leaders possible.’’
Echo-Hawk said he worked with people that could be compared to Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandella wrapped into one person.
These men were the highest caliber of religious leadership, he said. Native Americans make up about 3 million people in the general population. They have strong leadership that would rival any culture in any period of time.
As far as the future is concerned, Echo-Hawk says he will continue to enjoy practicing law as long as his health and family will permit.
While he also plans to enjoy a new grandchild — his third — Echo-Hawk looks back over his legal career with satisfaction.
When he enrolled in law school at the University of New Mexico in 1970 there were only 10 or 12 Native American attorneys in the U.S. That number has increased to between 2,000 and 3,000 practicing law across the country today.
Walter Echo-Hawk also has the satisfaction that he has been a mentor to Native American attorneys as they started their legal careers.

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