Welcoming Our New Honorary Member: John Echohawk

Posted on June 29, 2020 by Andrea Field

One of the perquisites of serving as President of the ACOEL is being able to select this year’s Honorary Fellow of the College.  When faced with a stack of nominating papers, I asked my predecessor, Allan Gates, for guidance on how to make my choice.  Our conversation was roughly as follows.

Me:  What are the criteria for choosing an Honorary Member? 

Allan:  You’ll know it when you see it.

Me:  That’s the standard Justice Stewart applied when determining whether certain material was obscene.  As I recall it, his reference point was something he had seen in Casablanca.  Could you be a bit more helpful in explaining how that standard applies here?

Allan:  You’ll know it when you see it.

It turns out that Allan’s advice was spot on.  When I saw the nomination papers for John Echohawk, I knew without a doubt that he was the person who should become an Honorary Fellow of the College this year.  Let me here share with you some of the information that I received from College members about John Echohawk, information that made it very easy for me to choose John as this year’s ACOEL Honorary Fellow. 

John Echohawk – the Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund – is a giant in the field of Native-American sovereignty, Tribal natural resources and environmental rights, and Tribal water rights.  He was the first graduate of the University of New Mexico’s special program to train Indian lawyers and was a founding member of the American Indian Law Students Association while in law school.  John helped found NARF in 1970 (barely a year after he graduated from law school), and he has served continuously as NARF’s Executive Director since 1977.  Under John’s leadership, NARF has represented Tribal interests in numerous high-profile cases in which his clients have sought, among other things, to protect the Badger-Two Medicine Area, prevent the shrinkage of Bears Ears National Monument, challenge the Trump administration’s plan to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and halt the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline.

John is now widely recognized as having distinctly shaped and enforced Tribal sovereign rights through his organization’s legal advocacy.  The National Law Journal has listed John as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America, and he has received numerous service awards and other recognition for his leadership in the Indian law field.  According to a June 24, 1988 profile in the New York Times, John’s success in asserting Tribal interests is so well known that “many public and private interests now seek to negotiate disputes with tribes over energy, water and sovereignty rather than face off in court against [Mr. Echohawk and his NARF colleagues].”  Noting that John is more than just a skilled attorney, the Times quoted from several governors who had been on the opposite side of the negotiating table from him in contentious matters and who came away from their experiences praising John’s collaborative style.  Said former South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow, John “genuinely wants to seek a solution where everyone can live together afterwards.”  And former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt then added that “if there is a charisma that emanates from silence, [John Echohawk’s] got it.”

Having started this article with a reference to one Supreme Court Justice, let me close with a reference to another.  I do so with an anecdote shared by Ken Salazar, who – over three decades – worked directly with John Echohawk on environmental and natural resources matters.  “We were both active Presidential appointees to the National Water Policy Commission in the 1990s.  During my time as Secretary of the Interior, I often sought Mr. Echohawk’s advice as we resolved the most complex and significant water rights Tribal cases in the United States and resolved seminal land trust management litigation. . . . John Echohawk is the Thurgood Marshall of Native American law.”

When told about his election as an Honorary Member of the College, John expressed thanks for the recognition and noted that the “Native American Rights Fund has always believed that environmentalists have the same values as traditional Native Americans.”  He said he looks forward to joining us “virtually” at our October 2, 2020 Annual Meeting. 

In addition to asking John to join us for our virtual meeting in 2020, we plan to invite him to join us for our next in-person Annual Meeting program, which is being planned for 2021.  It is a great honor to have John Echohawk become part of the American College of Environmental Lawyers.