The Legislative and Judicial Forms of Native Activism


By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Various forms of Native activism, including militancy, took place during the late 1960s and 1970s to help restore the rights of Native Americans. The other forms that came to the fore were the restoration movement, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, and many more.

Image of a Native American blended with the Flag of the United States
The restoration movement helped the Native Americans restore their lands. (Image: Vitezslav Halamka/Shutterstock)

Struggle for Restoration

The struggle for restoration—a movement taken up by all of the tribes that were terminated during the 1950s and 1960s—was one of the most efficacious. Their activism involved a lot of grassroots organizing, but they sought to change less through direct action than through congressional action.

Advocates of restoration gained leverage when, in July 1970, President Richard Nixon issued a special message to Congress on Indian affairs in which he proclaimed forced termination to be wrong. “The trust relationship was not an act of generosity,” he noted, “but the result instead of solemn obligations, which have been entered into by the United States Government.”

One of the most important figures in the restoration movement was Ada Deer, a Menominee woman with degrees in social work from the University of Wisconsin and Columbia. Through an organization called DRUMS, which stood for Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders, Deer, and other Menominees secured legislation that restored their nation’s trust relationship with the federal government in 1973. 

By the late 1980s, through tireless grassroots organization and sophisticated lobbying, virtually all of the other terminated tribes secured restoration as well.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Native American Rights Fund

An image of Taos Pueblo inhabited settlements, where Taos Pueblos tribe live
Taos Pueblos fought for 60 years to return to their sacred Blue Lake. (Image: Nick Fox/Shutterstock)

The Native American Rights Fund is another important reform-minded organization that appeared on the scene during the 1970s. Essentially a non-profit law firm, NARF sought to use the system to effect change. 

And, led by John Echohawk, a Pawnee, the Native American Rights Fund did indeed play crucial roles in pivotal cases involving land claims, fishing rights, religious freedom, natural resources, sacred lands, and repatriation. The organization continues to do so today.

Elsewhere, the Taos Pueblos capped a 60-year fight for the return of their sacred Blue Lake in 1970. And Alaska Natives secured title to approximately 44 million acres of land through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Both of these accomplishments served as turning points in  Federal-Indian relations. 

Important Legislation Passed by Congress

Then in 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the most important legislation in favor of self-government since the 1930s. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act made it possible for tribes to contract with the federal government for increased control over the administration of programs in their communities, thus chipping away at the control exercised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, though it lacked enforcement mechanisms, made it clear that the United States would “protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise…traditional religions.” In light of the flagrant transgressions of the past, this was no small achievement.

Learn more about Native America in the early 1900s.

Office of Federal Acknowledgment

The Office of Federal Acknowledgment, established administratively within the Bureau of Indian Affairs also in 1978, created guidelines for tribes seeking federal recognition. This was especially important for tribal nations east of the Mississippi River and to California tribes that had been sent into diaspora or all but destroyed—sometimes prior to the founding of the United States.

These nations had never lost their inherent sovereignty, but whether or not the US government recognized that sovereignty mattered a lot, especially in terms of being able to bring the land into trust and accessing federal support for health care, education, and welfare. 

Tribal nations secured important, if less than perfect, victories in the courts during the 1970s, as well. And again, these gains came through a different kind of activism, one that was reform-minded and sought to transform the system from within.

Judge George Boldt’s Decision

Gains were also made in the context of fishing rights. In 1974, federal judge George Boldt validated the claims of Pacific Northwest fishers to treaty-protected rights to fish in common with non-Indians in what was called—usual and accustomed places.

What’s more, Boldt read in common to mean that Washington tribes could take half of the salmon and steelhead trout catch permitted by state law and underscored that these weren’t rights granted to tribes but reserved by tribes. 

That is to say, these rights were inherent attributes of sovereignty that Indians carefully guarded during treaty negotiations with the United States. In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 1974 “Boldt decision”. It was a breathtaking victory for Native nations.

Learn more about Native Americans’ fight for their rights and land in the 1800s.

A Victory for the Lakota

The Lakota won a partial victory in another hard-fought battle when the Supreme Court validated their successful claim against the federal government for taking their sacred Black Hills in violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The United States v. Sioux Nation, which was decided in June 1980, upheld the $106 million award. 

If there was cause for believing that the system could be reformed from within, both Congress and the courts proved to be uncertain allies. Congress, despite passing legislation that was pro-sovereignty, contained within it many members who were hostile to tribal rights. 

And the Supreme Court handed down some very damaging decisions. In the 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe case, for instance, the Supreme Court delivered one of its most debilitating decisions when it ruled that tribal nations don’t have jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians inside Indian Country.

Common Questions about the Legislative and Judicial Forms of Native Activism

Q: What was the most effective form of Native activism?

One of the most effective forms of Native activism was the struggle for restoration. All of the terminated tribes took part in these movements to secure restoration. And finally, by the late 1980s, after much effort by many grassroots organizations as well as lobbying, they reached some of their most important objectives.

Q: What was the purpose of the Native American Rights Fund?

The Native American Rights Fund, led by John Echohawk, mainly focused on pivotal cases involving religious freedom, sacred lands, fishing rights, land claims, etc. The organization’s activities continue even today.

Q: What was the Office of Federal Recognition established for?

In 1978, the Office of Federal Recognition was established within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It created guidelines for tribes that were seeking federal recognition. This organization was important for tribes that were destroyed or were part of the diaspora.

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