Project to Implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States

Attorney: John E. Echohawk, Sue Noe, Kim Jerome Gottschalk

Photo of eight people smiling at the cameraAfter decades of advocacy by indigenous peoples, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. The Declaration can be an impetus for change, but it is only a framework. Implementation will require sustained effort. Laws and policies must change to fulfill the Declaration’s promises. To that end, NARF and the University of Colorado Law School (CU) created the Project to Implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States. Find the latest news and updates from the project at 

Case Updates:

May 2020: NARF and University of Colorado Law School Launch Web Site Serving Indigenous Peoples

Lacking adequate health care and other resources, American Indian tribes are experiencing high rates of infection and death caused by COVID-19. A new website ( developed by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the University of Colorado Law School provides resources to help promote the rights of indigenous peoples.

“Today, in a time of crisis, the Native American Rights Fund and University of Colorado Law School launch a joint website to empower Indian tribes in the United States regarding globally recognized human rights,” said NARF Executive Director John Echohawk.

As some states persist in attacking the ability of tribal governments to protect their members from this and other threats to self-determination, culture, land, and welfare, it is more important than ever to protect indigenous peoples’ rights.

Photo of eight people smiling at the camera

NARF – CU Project Staff

The website gathers key resources for tribes and communities, including a United Nations statement regarding the protection of indigenous peoples during COVID-19 and Colorado Law’s 2019 Report on Implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States.

The site will be an interactive platform for education and training to address not only challenges presented by COVID-19, but also opportunities to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples more broadly.

The Declaration is a worldwide standard-setting document recognizing the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, including self-determination and equality. The United States expressed its support for the Declaration in 2010, but implementation has been lacking.

“The Declaration should motivate and guide steps toward still-needed reconciliation with the country’s indigenous peoples, on just terms,” said Colorado Law Dean James Anaya.

In addition to making information available on the website, Colorado Law faculty and students together with NARF attorneys, in close collaboration with tribes and experts, will develop strategies for realizing the promises of the Declaration in the daily lives American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian peoples.

While some tribes have already passed legislation adopting the Declaration, others have used it in advocacy strategies. “The Declaration is key to protecting the tribal right to exist as peoples and to underscoring our responsibilities to tribal ways of life,” said project partner Judge Greg Bigler, a Euchee tribal member.

March 2019: Conference to advance the promises of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and develop a strategy for its implementation in the United States

NARF Staff Attorney Heather Whiteman Runs Him leads panel discussion, March 2019

NARF Staff Attorney Heather Whiteman Runs Him leads panel discussion, March 2019

One of the first programs of the CU/NARF Project to Implement the Declaration was held in March 2019. NARF and CU organized a two-day conference on the Declaration. Scholars, advocates, and legal practitioners discussed how to advance the Declaration and strategies for implementing it in the United States. The conference allowed planning for how the Declaration’s aspirations can be turned into reality in the United States. NARF Executive Director John Echohawk explained why that is essential:

“[The Declaration] has language in there that basically supports everything we’re trying to do in our advocacy work—in the courts, in the Congress, in the administration and agencies. There’s something in the Declaration that supports everything we are trying to do. So we need to wrap up that effort and utilize the Declaration more in support of our advocacy work. That’s the main purpose why we are here at this conference, is to refine those strategies and find better ways to use the Declaration to make a difference…”

Essentially, the Declaration acknowledges indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, equality, property, culture, and other human rights. CU Law School Dean James Anaya described it well:

“The Declaration envisions a future in which the countries of the world embrace and uplift indigenous peoples on fair and equitable terms with effective recognition of their rights to exist as distinct peoples in harmony with the societies that have grown up around them, free from social and economic disparities rooted in histories of mistreatment.”

The conference included discussions on challenges in Federal Indian Law, the role of international human rights in advocacy efforts, cultural rights, climate change and environmental advocacy, business and entrepreneurship, Indian child welfare, as well as technology and communications.Recordings of the conference sessions are available from the NARF YouTube channel.


Friday March 15, 2019

8:30-8:45 am   Welcome and Opening Remarks

8:45-10:00       Current Challenges in Federal Indian Law & the Promise of the Declaration.

10:15-11:15     The Role of International Law in US Domestic Advocacy and Law Reform

11:30-12:15     Keynote Address and Coen Lecture: Why Do We Need a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

12:30-1:30 pm Luncheon & Fireside: Inspired Action in Indian Country

2:00- 3:15        Comparative Perspectives on Implementation

3:30-4:45         Self-Determination & Human Rights in the United States

4:45-5:00         Reflections

Saturday, March 16

9-10:30 am       The UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019 (and Beyond!)

10:45-12:15      Human Rights in Action Workshops
A. Technology, Media, and Communication
                         B. Climate Change & Environmental Advocacy
                         C. Cultural Rights (possible breakout on Language Rights)
D. Indian Child Welfare
E. Business and Human Rights

Lunch & Wrap-Up 12:15-1:30


Related: Read more about NARF’s work with indigenous people at the United Nations.

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