History of the Native American Rights Fund

Jeanette Wolfley and Pat Tate review case files

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 now located at NARF’s main office in Boulder.