Pro Bono Representation for Indigenous Peoples

“In our every deliberation, we must consider the
impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

Iroquois Maxim

Standing Bear was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol. The significance of this symbol — a Native tribal member claiming space in the heart of the nation’s capital on behalf of his tribe and all Native people — cannot be overstated. The history of Native peoples in America has been fraught with conflict, broken treaties, and forced relocations — an experience familiar to Chief Standing Bear, whose tribe was forced by federal treaty to leave its homeland in 1876 to make room for Western expansion. A tense relationship between tribes and the federal government has existed since the beginning of treaty negotiations in the eighteenth century — a relationship that remains complicated by historically high levels of poverty, unemployment, disability, and addiction on federally-owned Native reservations. Against this background, unveiling a statue of a Ponca chief in the home of the nation’s legislative body is no small gesture, and the image of Chief Standing Bear has particular significance. A Ponca chief at the center of the Native civil rights struggle, Standing Bear successfully argued before Omaha Federal Court in 1879 that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law” and have the right of habeas corpus – establishing for the first time that Native Americans are entitled civil rights under American law. Though today viewed as an undisputed truth, these rights were highly controversial from their inception.

Today, the pro bono professionals who devote their time and skills to ensure the preservation of our nation’s indigenous heritage are instrumental in the ongoing struggle for recognition and protection of Native rights, and the effort behind unveiling of Chief Standing Bear’s monument is no exception. Leading the charge to memorialize the Native civil rights leader on behalf of the Ponca tribe was Akin Gump’s pro bono team, spearheaded by Ponca member and senior counsel of the firm’s American Indian law and policy center Katie Bossie.

Pro bono advocacy remains vital in Indian country to uplift Native voices and secure the rights of Native Americans, who even today experience poverty, addiction, and suicide at the highest levels of any marginalized group.

There has been a growing national spotlight on Indigenous movements – and with that, an increasing friction within the legal system. Indigenous rights issues offer opportunities for pro bono lawyers to have a significant and meaningful impact while being at the forefront of trailblazing legal efforts.

Pro Bono Meets Unmet Legal Needs of Indigenous People

Opportunities to engage in pro bono on behalf of indigenous people include handling litigation, mediation, transactional matters and governmental affairs, and can include partnerships with advocacy groups, such as the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and American Indian Law Alliance (AILA). Efforts by major law firms have been vital in advocating for the indigenous population, as is clear from the many victories achieved by pro bono lawyers on behalf of Native peoples:

  • Sovereignty: In 2018, Kirkland & Ellis*† won a major case for treaty rights in the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the Crow tribe. Wyoming state officials charged Herrera, a citizen of the Crow tribe, for hunting without a state license outside the tribe’s reservation; the Crow citizen argued that he was hunting in unceded territory and thus protected by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, as treaties do not have an expiration date even during statehood. The Supreme Court agreed. Thanks to pro bono efforts, the Supreme Court held the federal government accountable to its treaty obligations and affirmed tribal sovereignty and right to self-determination.
  • Infrastructure and Energy: Greenberg Traurig*† partnered with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to facilitate the consultation of Indigenous communities regarding infrastructure and energy projects on shared land. The firm prepared a study of the legal processes needed to comply with Mexican law, including a review of publications prepared by NHRC to promote ease of access by indigenous communities while retaining full protection of their rights.
  • Religious Freedom: Dorsey & Whitney*† successfully negotiated a settlement agreement with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), resulting in a change of policy regarding the handling of sacred Native American artifacts. The firm, representing the Native American Church of North America and Mr. Iron Rope, brought suit against TSA alleging violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when Mr. Iron Rope’s sacred items were improperly handled by TSA agents during routine screening. Under the terms of the settlement, TSA will require training regarding the handling of Native American sacred items and publish a Job Aid to educate its agents about less intrusive methods for inspecting items.
  • Citizenship: Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman successfully represented Cherokee Freedmen in a citizenship rights case in Washington, D.C. After a decade-long effort, the firm secured the rights of Cherokee Freedmen, descendants of slaves originally owned by members of the Cherokee nation, as full Cherokee citizens. This citizenship entitles the members full tribal benefits under the law – including the right to vote in tribal elections. The firm also obtained commitments from the U.S. Department of the Interior, who has oversight authority over the Cherokee Nation, to ensure that Cherokee Freedmen have equal access to federal Indian Health Services and other federal benefits administered by tribes.
  • Voting Rights: In 2013, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius*† and Armstrong Teasdale, *† co-counsel to NARF, successfully charged  Alaska election officials with ongoing violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. The pro bono team negotiated a settlement that provided, for the first time, that Alaska’s Official Election Pamphlet be translated into Alaska Native languages and dialects. Thanks to their efforts, Alaskan Natives can fully understand what they are voting for with Alaska’s new comprehensive language assistance program.

Pro bono volunteers and activists play a pivotal role in facilitating independence, leadership, and self-advocacy among the Indigenous population to freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. Whether you prefer working on behalf of individual clients, nonprofit groups, or in federal advocacy, the field of indigenous rights offers unlimited possibility to use your skills and talent to improve the lives of our nation’s First Peoples. We hope you will be inspired and get involved!


Have you done pro bono work supporting indigenous the community? Please reach out to us at lawfirm@probonoinst.organd share your experience.

* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member

Hat tip to PBI intern Emily Ren for her significant assistance.