Month: July 2002

The Fight for Rights Goes On: Native American Rights Fund holds the line on threats to tribal sovereignty and Native rights; An interview with John E. Echohawk (Pawnee), Executive Director

Founded in 1970, the Native American Rights Fund has worked to insure the survival of Native American tribes and people by using the United States court system to fight challenges – both overt and subtle – to tribal sovereignty and human rights. During this struggle of the past 32 years, the NARF has worked within the confines of their limited budget to provide crucial legal advice and assistance on issues of national significance to Native individuals, organizations and tribes throughout Native America. Although many people are not aware of the purpose of NARF or their specific efforts, they are aware of very high-profile and significant work that the organization has accomplished, for example: NARF (along with a private co-council) won the stunning victory in Cobell v. Norton, the class action suit that finally held the Department of Interior responsible for the proper management of the Indian Trust Monies, the Katie John case that was a major victory for Alaska Native subsistence fishing rights, and the Alabama Coushatta Tribe of Texas v. The United States land and water rights claim, in which they neared a settlement of $270 million where the Court of Federal Claims has previously ruled that the US should compensate the Tribe for the loss of use of 2.85 million acres of ancestral land in east Texas that was illegally taken without federal approval after Texas became a state in 1845. The work of NARF has been designed from the beginning to impact national Native issues and set important precedence on crucial tribal sovereignty and Native human rights issues.

TNV:

Can you explain how the NARF got started, and what you would qualify as the goals of the organization?

Echohawk:

I think the best way to describe the organization is “The National Indian Legal Defense Fund.” We’re a nonprofit organization [that was] organized 32 years ago in order to provide legal advise and assistance to Indian Tribes, organizations and individuals in cases of national significance where they can’t afford council. So, we raise money and hire attorneys who are expert in Indian law. We’ve been involved in most of the major Indian cases and pieces of legislation that have impacted Indian people across the country.

TNV:

How do you choose which cases to take on?

Echohawk:

We’re governed by an all Indian Board of Directors that sets the priorities for us. They include: protection of tribal existence, protection of our natural resources, and our human rights. These are the major priorities. Within these categories, we get a lot of calls and letters of people asking for help. Of course there is no way we can assist everybody, so we have to screen these requests carefully and select those cases that will establish the largest precedence for the most native people and have the biggest impact. We try to help as many people as possible through our work.

TNV:

So where did the idea for NARF come from?

Echohawk:

The first two or three groups of Indian law students that started law school that I was associated with all saw the potential for tribes in asserting their rights. [In law school] you learn a legal process, so we saw why tribes had not been successful in [defending their treaties and rights] before: because they didn’t have counsel to properly represent them. They were all poor and very few of them had any attorneys at all. So, we knew getting attorneys to the tribes to assert their rights under the treaties and federal Indian laws was very important. We saw that idea being proven by the Indian legal services programs that were started by the federal government on some reservations in the mid 1960’s. But, we recognized that the problem was that those programs, even though they were helping people, were very few and far between. We badly needed a national program to cover those areas that were not being properly represented. That was to be the Native American Rights Fund.

TNV:

Did you raise money from somewhere?

Echohawk:

We took example from the Civil Rights Movement that was going on at the time and the lawyers that were being provided to black people by the NAACP legal defense fund. The NAACP was at that time funded primarily by the Ford Foundation in New York City and, of course, we saw the whole Civil Rights Movement being driven by the litigation brought by this NAACP legal defense fund, so that was the model we used. We went to the Ford Foundation and asked them to fund a national litigation program for American Indians and they agreed – they helped us get started.

TNV:

The Civil Rights

Movement was driven by litigation? So, behind everything that was in the media protests, civil disobedience, etc. — there was this legal action going on?

Echohawk:

Yes, the legal principle being “equal treatment under the law for all people regardless of race and color.” That was a basic American principle that was vindicated in the courts and in Congress during the Civil Rights Movement. Our people asked about having this law as it applies to us upheld, including the treaties, but at that time, the U.S. had a policy of terminating our tribes, ignoring the treaties or breaking them intentionally, not recognizing the rights of Indians, and forcing us to assimilate against our will. So, we basically litigated against that termination policy by asking the courts to uphold the treaties and that’s what they started doing. This led to the Indian Self Determination Policy.

Civil Rights is a legal and political process.

TNV:

Can you explain what that means to set precedence and how that helps more than one person or more than one tribe?

Echohawk:

Well it’s a legal concept that basically means that once a court, like the U.S. Supreme Court, decides a question of law for one tribe, that under similar facts that same ruling is going to apply to other tribes in the same situation. So, what that usually means is that a good number of these cases that tribes bring to trial resolve issues for other tribes, too. We are all in these things together but once in a while there will be cases that are just limited to one particular tribe because of their particular treaty provision or legal issue that they are litigating. A lot of these issues really have precedential effect for all tribes, organizations and individuals.

TNV:

You mentioned legislation. How does NARF get involved with legislation in Congress…are you consultants? Do you help to get Bills sponsored? What is you role in forming legislation?

Echohawk:

Again we are basically lawyers and lawyers work for clients, so we have different clients that we work for in the legislative arena. Right now were working on the tribal sovereignty protection initiative that was organized by tribal leaders last year to respond to some bad Supreme Court decisions that limit tribal authority over non-Indians even on our own Indian lands. The Tribal Leader Steering Committee has asked us to co-chair a Legislative Drafting Committee [in order to] prepare legislation to overturn these bad Supreme Court decisions. We have been working on that for almost a year and are about ready to go public with the draft legislation concept, and to have tribal leaders start discussions with their Congressional and state leaders about the concepts in this legislation, and to try to generate support for it.

TNV:

It is really good to know that there is somebody out there working on this. Sometimes you hear about issues going on and it is frustrating because you don’t know that there are people out there who are actually working on behalf of the tribes.

Echohawk:

Well, it’s hard to keep up with everything, there’s a lot going on.

TNV:

How does the whole scope of things look right now? How is the whole effort going in supporting and protecting Native American rights and sovereignty?

Echohawk:

Well, overall since I started law school 35 years ago I think things have improved substantially for tribes in social and economic arenas. So, overall there’s been a lot of progress but there are always challenges, it’s never been easy.

TNV:

How can people help this process and support the work being done?

Echohawk:

I would just encourage everybody to vote. Look at the records of the candidates and vote for the person who is going to best support the tribes. You really need to look at the candidates and see what their records are and what they support and don’t support.

TNV:

Whats happening with the IIM accounts, and what’s the status of the litigation?

(The NARF are co-counsel representing the interests of the tribes in the case of Cobell v. Norton, the class action on behalf of 300,000 individual Indian trust account holders)

Echohawk:

We have two pending motions before the court. The first is the motion to have the Secretary of Interior and other Interior officials held in contempt of court for failing to follow the orders of the court to reform broken trust systems, and there are just many, many instances of their failure to comply with those court orders. We would like to have them fined and jailed since they won’t follow the court orders. Secondly, we’ve asked the court to appoint a receiver to do the trust reform, to take that away from the Department of the Interior temporarily and have this receiver under the jurisdiction of the court, reform that trust, and then train the Interior people on how to operate that trust. But it looks like the courts are going to have to do it since the Interior people are incapable of doing it themselves.

TNV:

What about all the missing money? Is that part of the case?

Echohawk:

Yes, that is that is the second part of the case besides fixing this broken trust accounting system. Once we deal with that, then we will get around to having the government do an accounting. That is, to figure out how much money should have been in each of these accounts. And we are pressing the court to set a trial date on that. But again, the court has these two pending motions before it right now, so it’s a process.

TNV:

How long do you think this whole process will take?

Echohawk:

Well, I never thought it would take the six years that it’s been going on now. We really thought the government would take this opportunity to do the right thing and carry out our trust responsibilities and settle with the Indians for all the money that’s been lost. But they’ve resisted us at every turn. We’ll continue to move forward and they’ll probably continue to resist, so it’ll probably be another several years before this is over.

TNV:

Do you ever take cases to international courts, like the Hague or the Geneva Convention? Is there ever any logical sense in going after things on an international level?

Echohawk:

We need to establish some clear international law on indigenous rights first.

There’s really not any. There are many people who have been working on this draft declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples forth last 25 or 30 years.

TNV:

Is that the United Nations effort that’s going on?

Echohawk:

Yes.

We’ve become involved in that lately on behalf of the Nations Congress of American Indians as their legal council. We’re helping them in these meetings dealing with the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people pending both in the United Nations and in the Organization of American States. Hopefully once we have those declarations passed, we will be able to enforce these declarations in international forums. And also force the U.S. Government to live up to that international law in their domestic policies.

TNV:

Is there anything you would like to say about the tribes supporting the NARF?

Echohawk:

I would just remind everyone that we are a non-profit organization, and that we exist primarily on grants and contributions because most of our clients are not able to pay. So we would encourage tribes, organizations and individuals to contribute as much as they can to our efforts on behalf of those who don’t have any lawyers, and these national efforts where we go in and represent all tribes. Because they are all impacted by all of these decisions, whether they know it or not.

TNV:

There are rumors popping up from time to time that there are some states trying to introduce legislation to terminate the tribes, the tribal sovereignty. Is that true?

Echohawk:

Well, there are occasionally bills that are introduced that limit our sovereign authority in one form or another, and we have to pull together and fight against that. So far, we’ve been successful in turning that back, but every day is a new day, every day is a new fight. And, these fights are really determined by who wins these elections. That’s why it’s really important for Indian people to get out and vote for people who are going to support tribal rights, and not let those people who are opposed to us get in there an vote against us. I’ve realized that every generation of Indian people has these fights to carry out. I’ve seen how our past generations have done the best they could to protect our Indian rights during their lifetimes. That’s what we’re doing now. Even though we’re working hard, we’re not going to resolve all of these issues in our lifetimes. They are always going to be challenges for our people. We need our younger Indian people to be ready to take over the leadership and protect our sovereign rights.

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“We worked hard to get it right…” A Native Voice interview with Windtalkers Producers Tracie Graham and Alison Rosenzweig

TNV: How did you come to do this project?

Windtalkers: 10 years ago my brother brought me the idea to make a movie about the Code Talkers. At that point I was fascinated and read a whole bunch of material but I couldn’t really figure out how to turn it into a feature film. When Tracy and I partnered a couple of years ago we both agreed that this was a noble subject and really needed to be exposed to the world. We did some more extensive research and found a fact that neither of us had ever known: some of the Code Talkers were assigned body-guards…[who] had orders to kill the Code Talkers if they were taken by the enemy because the code was considered more important than the [person]. When we read that we knew we had a movie.

TNV: How did you do the research for the film?

Windtalkers: We read a lot of books, but we also had a Navajo Code Talker assigned to us when were working on the script, Albert Smith. In addition, Richard Begay (who was not a Navajo Code Talker, he works in the Navajo Nation’s President’s office) was assigned to us for ceremonial and other cultural things for their accuracy. John Woo went out [to the Navajo Reservation], he met with the Code Talker Association. They actually have given us a lot of great feedback. Albert Smith was the former president of the Code Talker Association who ended up being our consultant. Once the movie was made and we showed the movie to them we had their full support. Sam Billison has been very supportive.

TNV: You went to the Navajo nation to tell them about the film? so they were aware of the fact that you were in development on this film?

Windtalkers: Yes. The Navajo Nation was very aware and very supportive.

TNV: How did you find that piece of information that the guards were ordered to shoot or kill the Code Talkers if the code was going to be compromised?

Windtalkers: There are a number of sources that we found, about four or five sources. The primary original source was a book called The Unbreakable Code but in the title of that book had changed and I cant remember the new title.

We did more extensive research and found several other sources not the least of which is a source that quotes Carl Gorman who was one of the original 29 Code Talkers who said that that was the case.

TNV: And as far as you know no one has ever had to actually carry out the order.

Windtalkers: Correct. You might want to take a look at a piece done recently by 60 Minutes that featured a real pair of a Code Talker and his body guard. It was an amazing piece.

TNV: Describe the story line.

Windtalkers: This is a relationship story, it’s really about two men one of whom happens to be a Navajo Code Talker and the other a body guard. The movie is really not about the origination of the code and the code talking, it starts after that. Its a movie about friendship and these two men, one who has been very damaged by war and doesn’t want to get close to somebody and another man, a Navajo Code Talker, who is just this very open kinda this infectious person and how he kinda helped heal the other man, he not only had helped to heal but also in the process he starts to evolve into a man of war also.

TNV: What would you like people to take away from this movie?

Windtalkers: I hope that everyone will walk away from this feeling proud. I hope that Navajos will be extremely proud of their contribution to the war and our history, and proud of their heritage. Many people in our country and in the world didn’t know about the Navajo Code Talkers at all even though it was declassified in 1968…I think people really didn’t have an interest.

Windtalkers is a movie that can make everybody feel proud to be American.

TNV: Was there any concern about how the Native American person watching the film would feel about it?

Windtalkers: We wanted to be respectful to Native Americans and so it was very much a concern of ours to make sure we got the ceremonies right, the culture right. It was difficult…we talked to a lot of different people and there were a lot of different opinions, specifically about the ceremonies. We wanted to make sure that we were not going to offend anybody.

TNV: I think it’s important that you were conscious in your process.

Windtalkers: I hope that everyone feels pleased with at least the accuracy of the movie. We had a Navajo linguist come out and help Adam Beach with the language because he is not Navajo, he is Chippawa from Canada. I remember Roger Willie (the Navajo actor who played Charlie White Horse) said to us, “You’ve got to get the language right,” and we agreed. All his relatives said, “Whatever you do, your job is to make sure Adam doesn’t embarrass us with the language.” So we hired a Navajo linguist to come out and help Adam, who had a real facility for the language. Roger took over the tutoring.

TNV: Have you guys made any particular effort to reach the Native community or include them?

Windtalkers: We actually had a lot of screenings out in various parts of the Navajo reservation and I know that MGM made quite a large donation in the creation of a scholarship foundation on behalf of the Code Talkers.

TNV: Any final words on the Windtalkers?

Windtalkers: We think it’s important that the world know about the Code Talkers and their contributions. We are proud and honored to be the people that have been able to help the world know about their bravery and unsung heroism up until this point in time.

Windtalkers breathes real life into the “Hollywood Indian”

What are movies about? At the very least a few hours of entertainment and escape, and at best a source of inspiration and transcendence – taking us from the mundane into that place inside where we experience a deeper understanding of life and open ourselves to being affected by a story told by light flickering in the darkness on a big screen. That is when movie-making approaches it’s original intentions of being more than money at the boxoffice, of being more than a momentary distraction easily forgotten once we leave the theater.

Windtalkers, a story about the Navajo Codetalkers of WWII, is more that just a wanna-be blockbuster, it is a noble film. It is storytelling at it’s modern best, taking a lot of truth as it’s bones, adding fable as it’s meat, and allowing the story to take on a life of it’s own. Windtalkers breathes life into a story set 50 years ago, breathes life into the Indian people portrayed in the film and allows truths to be told – truths about the specifics of the situation, truths about the human condition, truths about the experiences of Indian people in this country.

Set in the context of the 1944 battle of Saipan, Windtalkers can at first glance be mistaken as just another war movie. All the flash and dazzle special effects are there, and it is a realistic portrayal of war, but the story itself centers around the human relationships. Producers Tracie Graham and Alison Rosenzweig took what looked like a documentary film subject and carefully built a very rich dramatic movie. They took their time to develop the project, doing extensive research into the subject of the Navajo Code Talkers, working diligently to add a emotional angle to the story so that they could translate textbook history into a dramatic major motion picture. Their work was rewarded with the discovery of a little known fact: that some of the code talkers were partnered with body guards whose job it was to “protect the code at all costs,” meaning that the bodyguards were instructed to kill the Codetalker if they fell into enemy hands. The Navajo code was everything the US Government hoped it would be, a military code language that would prove unbreakable by the Japanese forces. The code therefore came to be valued above the individuals’ lives.

Windtalkers is built around this dramatic and historic discovery, and focuses on the relationships and emotions that develop between the Navajo Code Talkers and their Marine guards.

Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) plays the lead Codetalker Ben Yazzie who is guarded by the war worn Joe Enders, played by Nicholas Cage. “Casting Yazzie was difficult,” said Producer Terence Chang, “We need an actor to carry one of the two leading roles, and the best person for that was Adam. The Navajo Nation gave us it’s blessing to cast Adam, though he is non-Navajo, as he is 100% Native American.” Beach proves that he can do more than carry the role, as he truly stars in this film. Roger Willie (Navajo) makes his screen debut in Windtalkers as Codetalker Charlie Whitehorse, and his guard is Pete “Ox” Anderson, played by Christian Slater. Willie is amazing as a first-time actor, and he “had no intention of auditioning, he was coaxed into reading for a part by his two nephews, whom he had brought to a casting call (in Colorado).” Roger Willie is of the Wateredge Clan, speaks fluent Navajo, and was raised in a traditional family. He ended up being a valued presence on the Windtalkers set, advising the Director and coaching Beach on his Navajo dialogue.

The refreshing and unexpected surprise of Windtalkers is that it is so well written by John Rice and John Batteer and directed by John Woo (Mission Impossible 2). They found their balance at the beginning of the film and walked that line through to the end. It is clear that they did their homework, listened to their Native advisors, and let the Native actors weave themselves into the characters: there is great Indian humour (at the theater in Rapid City it was fun to see the Indians in the audience laughing at all the jokes, leaving some non-Indians to wonder what they missed), nuances of body language, reality of emotion and reaction, and simple/beautiful portrayals of Native spirituality. It is in these details that the film finds it’s proper groove and takes us along for a ride.

Although people might be confused about the MGM poster of the film in which the Navajo Codetalker (Adam Beach) is pictured behind the non-Indian Marine guard (Nicholas Cage), this is not just a box-office-star-goes-infront dictate, but is a reflection of the story line in which the guard is always in front of the code-talking radio operator to act as his protector on the front line. It also (perhaps unintentionally) reflects one of the film’s messages: that the Native American military serviceman consistently took a backseat to the “White guy,” and that the United States government and military did not properly honor the heroic accomplishments of many Native soldiers. The information about Navajo Codetalkers was declassified in 1968, it took until July 26, 2001 for them to be honored with Congressional Gold Medals in Washington, DC, and until the release of this major Hollywood film it was a fact of WWII that was unknown to most.

The people of the United States and the US government are coming to recognize the invaluable contributions that Indian people have given in military service. In one of the opening scenes, we see the Native soldiers pledging to “defend the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” A mere 50 years earlier, the “domestic enemies” were those same Indian Tribes that were being called to service and then went on to help win WWII. As a matter of fact, Native Americans were not citizens of the United States until 1924.

Like a wave on the ocean gathering energy and momentum, Windtalkers is out there exposing audiences worldwide to the heroic contributions of Native Americans. As one Senator noted, now that the film is out “The Bill in Congress recognizing Sioux and other code talkers will surely pass.” Now, that’s a good use of the power of Hollywood.

Go see this film. It’s much more than it looks like from outside the theater; there’s a whole different picture waiting for you in the dark.

(see The Elders’ Voice section for more details on the upcoming legislation in Congress to recognize the Sioux Codetalkers)