Our History

We have proudly served California Indian communities for over
50 years. Below is a snapshot of notable developments and
actions undertaken by our organization, and the historical
context that has allowed us to make change.

Our Founding

1958: Rancheria Act

In California, 41 tribes were slated for termination. Ultimately, 38 tribes would be terminated, and tribal lands were distributed to individual tribal members. The Termination Act for California was to be carried out by ensuring that the tribal communities would be provided with not only land, but water resources, roads, housing, and other services. However, none would occur.

1960: The Establishment of Legal Services for Rural & Native Americans

In 1960, CILS’ origins began with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). The organization’s earliest mission was to reach out and provide legal representation to clients in rural areas, including many Native Americans.
Soon the frequency and complexity of legal problems faced by California’s Native population led to the formation of an Indian Services Division to deal with these unique issues and would ultimately lead to the creation of CILS.

1967: The Inception of CILS

In 1967, George Duke and a young activist/organizer from the Hoopa Valley Tribe named David Risling set out to incorporate an entity distinct from CRLA, which dealt exclusively with Indian law, and thus CILS was created.

1968: Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968

Native Americans were given complete access to the United States Bill of Rights. This ensured their entitlement to religious freedom, the right of habeas corpus (or lawful imprisonment justification), the right to a trial by jury, and other forms of protection.

Late 1960s: CILS Board of Trustees is Formed

Near the end of the 1960s CILS formed a Board of Trustees. The Board, which still governs CILS today, grew to include a Native American majority, a California Supreme Court Justice, a future mayor, and a Congressman-turned-Senator.


CILS Expands

During the 1970’s the original CILS office based in Berkeley moved to Oakland to be closer to its Native clientele and legal resources. Eventually, branch offices opened in Bishop, Escondido, Eureka, and Ukiah, California. Today four field offices (Bishop, Escondido, Eureka, and Sacramento) staffed by advocates, including attorneys, paralegals, and intake workers, serve the fifty-eight counties of California and tribes outside the state.

1973: Manchester Band of Pomo Indians, Inc. v. U.S.

In 1973, CILS held the United States liable for its failure to responsibly invest Indian money entrusted to them.

1973: Mattz v. Arnett.

In 1973, CILS fought against arbitrary diminishment of reservation boundaries by states.

1974: Rincon Band of Mission Indians v. County of San Diego.

In 1974, CILS challenged the ability of county ordinances to restrict certain types of gambling on reservation land.

1974: Legal Service Corporation’s Founding

On July 25, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon signed the law creating the Legal Services Corporation. The Legal Services Corporation seeks to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans by providing funding for civil legal aid to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it.

1975: Santa Rosa Band v. Kings County.

In 1975, CILS championed the right of California Tribes to govern themselves despite local government opposition.

1975: Scott v. Eversole.

In 1975, CILS prevailed against discrimination by local government contractors in providing services.

1978: Indian Child Welfare Act 1978

In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed. It would require state court in “child custody
proceedings” (dependency cases) to notify the Indian child’s tribe, right of intervention, placement preference with tribal family members or tribal members.

1979: Quechan Tribe v. Southern Pacific Transportation Co.

In 1979, CILS asserted the right of the Quechan Tribe to preserve their land base against state opposition.


1980: Rincon Band of Mission Indians v. Harris.

In 1980, CILS accomplished the goal of securing California Indians equal health services.

1983: Tillie Hardwick v. U.S.

In 1983, CILS restored “terminated” California Tribes to their full recognized status as tribal governments.

1984: People v. McCovey

In 1984, CILS defended the rights of California Tribes to regulate hunting and fishing within their reservations.

1987: Sample v. Borg

In 1987, CILS promoted freedom of worship in accordance with traditional Native religious practices.

1988: Pinoleville Indian Community v. Mendocino County

In 1988, CILS worked with tribes to protect the natural environment within their reservations and strengthened tribal sovereignty.

1988: Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assoc.

In 1988, CILS fostered awareness of the desecration of Indian sacred sites and the importance of religious freedom.

1988: Harold Hammond v. Madera County

In 1988, CILS extended civil rights protections to Indians against state trespass onto their lands.


1990: In re Crystal K.

CILS guided the courts to better understand the purpose and intentions behind the Indian Child Welfare Act.

1990: Water Study Project Initiated

In 1990, the water study project was initiated to provide a detailed overview of the legal and factual status of water rights possessed by California Indian tribes and public domain allotment owners to evaluate and prioritize the needs of California Indians for the protection and development of their water resources.

1991: In re Kahlen W.

In 1991, CILS guarded Indian families and children against arbitrary removal of children from their family.

1994: Malone v. Bureau of Indian Affairs

In 1994, CILS preserved the rights of California Indians whose tribes lack federal acknowledgment.


2000: In re Julian B.

CILS won a victory for juvenile Indians by forcing state agencies to use better discretion when reviewing Indian Child Welfare Act matters.

2006: California Senate Bill 678

In 2006, CILS led the charge to ensure the Indian Child Welfare Act is complied with in California courts. The goal of SB 678 was the uniform application of the federal ICWA in California to ensure that ICWA’s protections appear in state law.

2007: In re M.M. v. Michael T.

In 2007, CILS ensured courts decide in favor of tribal sovereignty by reinforcing respect for tribal courts under the Indian Child Welfare Act.


2010: FTB Case No. 568967388

In 2010, CILS opposed the Franchise Tax Board’s attempts to create a “tribal source” rule and to tax the income of a tribal member living and working on her own reservation.

2012: Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians v. U.S. 54 IBIA 320

In 2012, CILS protected tribes from BIA intervention into internal political matters.

2012: In re W.B.

In 2012, CILS argued for the application of the Indian Child Welfare Act in juvenile delinquency cases.

2012: Los Coyotes v. DOI and BIA

In 2012, CILS challenged BIA’s denial of a 638 contract for tribal law enforcement on the grounds the tribe is located in a Public Law 280 state.


2012: Tim White et. al v. University of California et.al and Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee (KCRC).

In 2012, CILS won a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s suit against KCRC on grounds of tribal sovereign immunity in the NAGPRA case.

2012: Mushroom Farm Inc. v. Rincon Band of Mission Indians. ural Repatriation Committee (KCRC)

In 2012, CILS organized and submitted an amicus brief on behalf of over 50 California tribes in support of reconsideration of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that plaintiffs did not have to exhaust tribal court remedies. Case involved the Tribe’s enforcement of tribal environmental laws on owners of non-Indian fee lands within the boundaries of the Rincon Reservation. The 9th Circuit reserved itself and remanded to trial court to order exhaustion of tribal court remedies.

2015: Partnership with Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition, Inc.

In 2015, CILS partnered with Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition, Inc. as a part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to provide legal assistance and advocacy to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking.

2015: Bishop Paiute Tribe v. Inyo County et al.

In 2015, CILS initiated federal litigation on behalf of the Bishop Paiute Tribe against the County of Inyo, its District Attorney, and Sheriff for interfering with the Tribe’s inherent authority to enforce its law against all persons who violate those laws and threaten the health and safety of the tribal community.

2016: Tim White et. al v. University of California et. al and Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee (KCRC)

In 2016, CILS successfully defeated three University of California professors’ legal challenge to block repatriation of ancient Kumeyaay human remains.

2018: AB 233 Amended the California Educational Code ltural Repatriation Committee (KCRC).

Officially signed into law on September 28, 2018, CILS support the amendment of AB 233 to allow students to wear cultural, religious and traditional regalia at their high school graduations. CILS drafted and successfully ushered the bill through the Assembly and Senate, only to have Governor Brown veto it in 2017. Building on the work of CILS, Assemblymember Todd Gloria reintroduced the bill, AB 1248, and was successful in having Governor Brown sign the bill into law.


2021: Criminal Expungement Project

In 2021, CILS began offering free livescan services to Native Americans to obtain their official record of arrests and prosecutions. With this service, CILS provides direct legal services for court representation in discretionary (court-ordered) expungements.

2022: Military Discharge Upgrade Project

In 2022, CILS launched the Military Discharge Upgrade Project to upgrade the discharge statuses of Native Veterans regardless of discharge dates.

Our Historic Work Continues

See how we continue to move the needle on key
issues in California and across Indian Country.