On August 5, 2023, the American Bar Association (ABA) will bestow the Thurgood Marshall Award, a recognition to honor lifelong champions of civil and human rights, to John E. Echohawk, the co-founder and Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). Peers nominate individuals for the award, which the association established to honor the impact and legacy of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Marshall volunteered for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons so tirelessly after graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1933, that civil rights advocacy soon became his career. He founded the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in 1940 and began litigating against segregation laws and policies targeting black people.

The cases that Marshall and LDF won created equal access to public education and desegregated law schools by removing laws and policies that allowed discrimination to persist in American society. He argued 32 civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and fittingly, ultimately served as the first Black Supreme Court Justice from 1967-2001.

“As an attorney Thurgood Marshall removed barriers so his community could seek justice and as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, he vigilantly defended equal application of law for each of us for 34 years,” said Echohawk. “The American Bar Association honors his legacy and the lifelong commitment it takes to address societal inequities, by bestowing the Thurgood Marshall Award. I am very honored to stand among the recipients of this award.”

“Protecting the rights of tribal nations and Native people is an unending and complex legal necessity, as no two tribal nations share the same legal history. While treaties remain the supreme law of the land, how U.S. federal, state, and local governments uphold or violate terms of each treaty varies greatly,” said Echohawk, who holds citizenship in the Pawnee Nation.

To address this complexity, the University of New Mexico launched a program to train the first generation of lawyers that tribal nations desperately needed. Echohawk was one of the first graduates of this program in 1970.

“When my classmates and I began to study the law, Native people did not yet have full access to U.S. courts as an avenue to justice,” said Echohawk, who is a founding member of the Native American Law Students Association. “Very few people had even written about federal Indian law and only a few lawyers had ever represented tribal nations in the U.S. court system.”

John Echohawk in Black Mesa, Ariz. in 1970, explaining the opportunity to create a national Indian legal defense fund and requesting feedback on how the organization could best serve Native people.

John Echohawk and NARF co-founder David Getches discuss strategy.

When Echohawk graduated from law school, California Indian Legal Services hired him. In August 1970, he accepted responsibility to co-pilot a Ford Foundation-funded program that aimed to offer legal services to federally recognized tribes across the United States. The successful initiative became NARF, headquartered in Boulder, Colo. To this day, Echohawk continues to serve as the Executive Director for the national Native-led nonprofit legal defense organization.

“We congratulate Executive Director Echohawk on this well-earned achievement. All of us at NARF thank him for his tireless work on behalf of Native rights,” said NARF Deputy Director Matthew L. Campbell.

The ABA award ceremony will take place in Denver. Visit the American Bar Association website for additional information about the Thurgood Marshall award and past recipients.

Introduction of John Echohawk at the ABA Award Ceremony by Judge Harris L. Hartz.
Remarks from Echohawk upon receiving the award.
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