The biggest challenge facing Indians today is the struggle to obtain recognition of Indian rights, said a prosecuting attorney and member of the Pawnee Indian Tribe.
Larry Echohawk said Indians are fighting to overcome negative images and stereotypes that the general public promotes. "It's always a struggle to get people to understand what Indian rights are all about," he said.Speaking Monday as part of Indian Awareness Week at the University of Utah, Echohawk urged Indian students to become more involved in politics.
Of the thousands of statutes and administrative decisions decided on Indian rights over the years, he said, Indians have had little to do with the decision-making except during the last 15 years.
Besides the need to have their legal rights observed, the Indian people need to become involved politically and to learn to manage political power, said the former Idaho state representative.
While government treaties are often regarded as the "supreme word of the land," Echohawk said, treaties with Indian nations are often ignored and regarded as things of the past.
He compared the disregard for treaties to a grandfather who acquired a homestead 100 years ago. The agreement for the homestead would still be valid today, yet agreements with Indians are often questioned, he said.
"(Indians) today are in the position of reacting and picking up the pieces," said Echohawk. Indian people now can feel bitter and live in bitterness, but if that attitude prevails, it will only harm the cause. Echohawk encouraged Indians to take the land and legal principles that they currently have and "make the best that there is to make for future generations."
It is important that the Indian people help others to understand why Indians have certain rights and privileges, he said. Education can change attitudes. "People can change if given the facts and the history."
Echohawk was one of the first Indians to receive a law degree from the University of Utah. Since then, he said, "the Indian people have made enormous strides in obtaining law degrees." There are currently more than 400 Indian lawyers, which "has made a tremendous difference," he said.