December 4, 2020

Continuing the conversation...Native American rights and sovereignty

by Tai Bickham


This is the first in a series of interviews MCA Denver will hold with individuals and organizations here in Colorado working on the issues discussed in each week’s free virtual programming for Citizenship: A Practice of SocietyThis week's program led us to want to learn more about individuals and organizations that advocate for the rights of Native American and Indigenous people.

This week, MCA Denver hosted a virtual conversation between exhibiting artist Alan Michelson and scholar Jolene Rickard on Native American sovereignty, citizenship and civil rights. You can watch that conversation here.

Headquartered in Boulder, CO, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), is one of the oldest and largest nonprofit organizations providing legal assistance to Indian tribes, organizations and individuals nationwide. We interviewed attorney Matthew Campbell at NARF to learn more about the important work of this organization and the work they do in Colorado and elsewhere to fight for Native American sovereignty and civil rights.

What is your role at Native American Rights Fund and how long have you been with the organization?

My name is Matthew Campbell, and I am a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund (“NARF”).  I joined NARF in March 2013 and am going on my eighth year at NARF.

How did you get started in working to address Native American rights?

I am enrolled in the Village of Gambell in Alaska and therefore have always had a connection and interest in Native American and Alaska Native rights. This interest started to grow in undergrad at Fort Lewis College, and then blossomed with my experience at the Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians and Alaska Natives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and during my time in law school at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. It was during law school that I really started to work to address Native American rights.

What is the mission of Native American Rights Fund?

The Native American Rights Fund holds governments accountable. We fight to protect Native American rights, resources, and lifeways through litigation, legal advocacy, and expertise.

Could you share a brief history of the Native American Rights Fund?

You can see the history of NARF at:

 [Image description Artist Alan Michelson's, artwork of a reproduction of the December 30, 1924 letter to Calvin Coolidge by the chiefs of the Onondaga Nation, protesting the Indian Citizenship Act and reaffirming Onondaga sovereignty. The reproduction is on a pair of blankets in the colors white and purple and hangs on a white gallery wall with a dark concrete floor.]
Alan Michelson, Blanket Refusal, 2020. Laser print on double-sided fleece blanket, 80 x 60 inches. Courtesy the artist.

In the exhibition, New York-based artist Alan Michelson's Blanket Refusal (2020), is a laser print on a fleece blanket of the letter written to President Coolidge from the Onondaga Tribe of the Six Nation Confederacy of New York State opposing the Snyder Bill, or the Indian Citizenship Act, that was signed into law in 1924. The act abrogated treaties that northeastern Native nations hold with the U.S. government that recognize them as sovereign nations. Some members of these nations, namely the Onondaga of central New York State, protested the act for this reason. What is this 100 year old law's legacy today?

Prior to 1924, Native Americans were considered to be citizens of separate political communities and not a part of the body politic of the United States. Tribes are separate sovereigns and therefore native people are citizens of their respective nations, and were not citizens of the United States. Indeed, when the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause was passed, it specifically excluded Native Americans. The federal government’s effort to assimilate Native Americans often relied on making Native Americans become citizens and forcing native people to denounce their tribal relations, religion, culture, and way of life. This culminated in the 1924 Act, which unilaterally conferred citizenship on Native Americans as a collective without any affirmative request by native people.

While Native people legally became citizens in 1924, despite some objections, they were often not treated as citizens. For example, in 1936 Attorney General Byron G. Rogers of Colorado stated that Native Americans were not entitled to vote in state elections. After World War II, Native American veterans came home to find that states were still denying them the right to vote even though they had fought in the war for the country. In New Mexico and Arizona, it was not until 1948 after Native veterans challenged the denial of their right to vote that the New Mexico and Arizona Supreme Courts found such discrimination to be unlawful. The last state to fully guarantee voting rights for Native people was Utah in 1962. So, while citizenship was unilaterally bestowed in 1924, NARF still has to fight today to ensure native people have the right to vote.

How can Coloradans engage with the work or mission of the Native American Rights Fund?

We encourage everyone to visit our website, to learn more about what we do, sign up for our email newsletters, and consider a donation to support our important work.

Could you share any resources for our audience on how we can learn more on Native American sovereignty and civil rights?

NARF's website has many great resources on Native American sovereignty and civil rights, and the work that is still happening today to protect native people.