Native American Rights Fund: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Special advocacy groups in the USA can be very important in helping underrepresented people maintain their legal rights. In this lesson, we'll explore one of these and see how the Native American Rights Fund works.

The Native American Rights Fund

One of the things that make American democracy work is the ability of private citizens to form special interest or activist groups. These groups manage resources, raise awareness, and campaign for issues that matter to many people, but which may not always be on the radar of national politicians, which makes them important.

One common technique used by advocacy groups is to hire lawyers who are specially trained in the law relevant to that issue. This has been a very successful tactic used by groups like the NAACP to help fight civil rights violations. A very similar organization is NARF. NARF stands for the Native American Rights Fund, which is a non-profit 501c(3) organization that provides legal aid and counsel to Native Americans and Native American interest groups in the USA, as well as tribal governments. The law was made to protect everyone equally in the United States, and NARF's goal is to make sure that happens.

Keith Harper, who was a NARF litigator for 11 years before becoming the first Native American ever appointed to a position as a US Ambassador
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What NARF Does

So, what exactly does the Native American Rights Fund do, and how does it work? NARF's primary mission is to address legal issues facing Native American communities and tribal governments. They tackle cases of civil rights violations, voter suppression, land and water management, hunting and fishing rights, treaty obligations, religious freedom, repatriation of artifacts, and education. Most of NARF's staff and attorneys are Native American, so these are issues they understand on a personal level as well.

Imagine that you're in a Native American community, but a new state policy makes it nearly impossible for people on the reservation to get to the polls for a presidential election. NARF lawyers may step in and bring that case before a judge, using their legal experience to show how voting rights are negatively impacted by the new policy. Or, imagine that a proposed pipeline could threaten access to clean water. That happened in 2016 on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, with the protests becoming national events. NARF was one of the advocacy groups to donate legal assistance, working with the reservation attorneys to build a legal case that could be taken before a federal court.

NARF works in cases where Native American rights or lives are at risk, such as the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation
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There's a deep, and really complex history of the legal relationship, between the American government and recognized Amerindian tribes, and many people don't know all of their right,s or have access to the convoluted and often expensive process of litigation. The legal system can be really hard for many people to navigate, and NARF helps by providing professional legal assistance. NARF's staff and 16 attorneys are specially trained in issues affecting Native American communities and have a successful track record, helping over 250 tribes defend their rights in American courts.

As a non-profit, NARF relies heavily on donor support and private contributions. So, where's your money actually go? It's not hard to find out. NARF is consistently rated in the highest percentile of transparency ratings, earning scores of 97% or higher. About 77% of donations go directly to program expenses (which is actually pretty high for a non-profit), with the rest being used for fundraising and administrative expenses, and growing the non-profit.

History of the Native American Rights Fund

The Native American Rights Fund is an important organization, but how does something like this actually come to be? The history of NARF dates back to the 1960s when the federal government issued new policies to fight poverty. The USA was in an ideological war against communism at the time, and poverty undermined the credibility of American capitalism, so, it had to be fixed.

Activists working in the poverty-reduction programs quickly realized that there was a lot of poverty in Native American communities, largely due to economic inequity. However, addressing this poverty turned out to be pretty hard. Reservations, in particular, were governed by obscure sets of treaties, precedents, tribal laws and federal laws that sometimes contradicted states policies. In many cases, it was these policies and laws that actually maintained poverty on the reservations.

Although imperfect, the war on poverty was one of the first times that poverty on Native American reservations was really addressed
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