Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and a spiritual leader of the Sioux Nation, speaks at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

San Manuel Band awards large grant to Tribal Supreme Court Project

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians has awarded a $600,000 grant to the Tribal Supreme Court Project.

The funds, to be spent over a three-year period, will enable the Native American Rights Fund and the National Congress of American Indians to monitor, coordinate and advocate for tribal interests before the highest court in the land.

“The Tribal Supreme Court Project is based on the principle that effective tribal advocacy before the Supreme Court must be built on a coordinated and structured approach," NARF senior staff attorney Joel Williams, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said on Wednesday.

"NARF is honored to coordinate efforts and provide case review and analysis that has the potential for wide-reaching impacts in Indian Country," Williams continued. "We are thankful for the San Manuel Band’s continuing support for such a valuable resource.”

The Supreme Court's current term began last October with just one Indian law case on the docket. Since then, the justices have agreed to hear two more tribal cases and are considering petitions in at least eight more cases of interest.

Tribes historically looked to the U.S. Supreme Court to protect their rights but the landscape began to shift in the 1980s and 1990s. After a particularly disastrous term that saw tribes lose four out of five cases, NARF and NCAI launched the Tribal Supreme Court project in 2001.

The initiative helped blunt the negative impacts of the court's decisions by helping tribes focus their arguments in cases accepted by the justices. At the same time, the work helped prevent potentially troublesome cases from being heard altogether.

But another negative streak emerged between 2016 and 2017, when tribes lost nine out of 11 cases. The record turned around the following year, when three out of four cases went in favor of tribal interests. The sole loss wasn't seen as a major setback because it didn't disrupt a favorable precedent set by the court during NARF's and NCAI's efforts.

So far in this term, the court hasn't released any Indian law decisions. A ruling is expected soon in Patchak v. Zinke, whose outcome will determine whether Congress can protect tribes from litigation against their homelands.

Arguments in Upper Skagit Indian Tribe v. Lundgren take place on March 21 and the outcome will determine whether a property dispute can proceed without the involvement of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. The case is unusual in that the Supreme Court accepted it at the tribe's request.

Arguments have yet to be scheduled in Washington v. U.S., a treaty rights case. The outcome will determine whether the state of Washington is responsible for failing to fix hundreds of culverts, or passageways for salmon.

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