In 1970, the federally funded organization California Indian Legal Services (CILS) used a Ford Foundation grant to bankroll the implementation of a pilot project that would cater to Indians all across the United States. Known as the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), that project separated itself from CILS in 1971 and incorporated as an independent 501c(3) nonprofit group. That same year, a $119,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York enabled NARF to establish the National Indian Law Libraryin Boulder, Colorado. Since then, NARF has provided legal assistance to Indian tribes, organizations, and individuals in hundreds of major cases involving matters like tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, natural resource protection, and Indian education.
NARF today is governed by a volunteer board of directors composed of thirteen Native Americans hailing from a number of different tribes. Moreover, a staff of sixteen NARF attorneys typically handles more than fifty major cases at any given time, all of them taken “on the basis of their breadth and potential importance in setting precedents and establishing important principles of Indian law.”
One of NARF's major initiatives is its Protect Tribal Natural Resources program, which seeks to help Indian tribes safeguard their rights over lands that contain extractable commodities such as oil, gas, and timber, or that are used for activities like hunting, fishing, livestock grazing, and agriculture. This program also professes to helpAmerican Indian and Alaska Native tribes deal with “an array of health and welfare risks [that exist] as a result of environmental problems, such as surface and groundwater contamination, illegal dumping, hazardous waste disposal, air pollution, mining wastes, [and] habitat destruction.” One of the program's chief concerns is the notion that greenhouse gas emissions associated with human industrial activity across North America contribute heavily to “climate change” which, in turn, poses a threat to the natural environment on Indian lands. In an effort to ensure “that indigenous rights are protected in any international treaty or agreement governing greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” NARF currently represents the National Congress Of American Indians through the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change. Moreover, NARF boasts that it “has represented Alaska Native tribes in court cases against energy companies for damages” in that state, “where the impact of climate change is immediate and immense.”
NARF's Promote Native American Human Rights program works through international forums like the United Nations and the Organization Of American States, with the goal of enforcing laws that bar “discrimination in voting, education, incarceration, and religion.” Consider, for instance, NARF's positions with regard to voting rights:
Noting that “the Voting Rights Act [VRA] of 1965 … recognizes American Indians and Alaska Natives as a language minority group,” the Fund complains that some U.S. states have failed to fulfill the VRA requirement that they “distribute voter information in local languages and conduct bilingual elections.” In early 2017, for instance, NARF noted that it had “litigated two successful cases against the State of Alaska for failing to comply with the language requirements of the VRA.”
In a related issue, NARF chargesthat “several voting populations of Alaska Natives have received little to no oral or written assistance [at polling places] from the state in their native languages,” and that “as a result, many Alaska Natives were unable to vote at all, or voted in a way they did not intend.” One case that was resolved satisfactorily, by NARF's calculus, was a court-ordered “translation of all pre-election materials and the posting of translators at all polling places.”
NARF also claims that some states “have enacted voting schemes such as districting that effectively dilute Indian votes,” which are cast overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.
NARF's Government Accountability program strives to “hold governments at all levels accountable for the broad range of laws that protect tribal sovereignty and Native rights,” and to ensure that “the United States, in particular, [is] responsible to tribes for its legal promises, moral obligations, and past detrimental policies.”
Finally, NARF's Develop Indian Law and Educate the Public program boasts that it “has played a key role in “developing a body of federal law pertaining to tribal sovereignty, tribal land and natural resources, human rights, and the accountability of governments to Native people.” This body of law consists of hundreds of thousands of treaties, acts of Congress, court decisions, executive orders, regulations, and administrative rulings that, as NARF puts it, “acknowledge the rights of American Indian and Native Alaskan tribes and peoples.” Through a multitude of consultations and training sessions, NARF has educated legislators, judges, attorneys, and officials about Indian law and tribal rights. Moreover, the organization seeks to inform the wider public about such matters by means of materials disseminated through print, electronic, and social media.