CILS History

Five Decades of Service and Counting!

California Indian Legal Services (CILS) was born when the country was undergoing powerful social and political changes. Originally dubbed 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. In 1967 at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, then-director George Duke and a young activist/organizer from the Hoopa Tribe named David Risling set out to incorporate an entity distinct from CRLA, which dealt exclusively with Indian law.

Over the next decade, CILS fought passionately for the rights and interests of Native Americans both in and out of court and with the dominant political powers of the time. CILS filed lawsuits and brought attention to issues never before considered by courts of law, let alone the public at large, including holding the Bureau of Indian Affairs accountable for delivering inefficient services and poor management of trust assets. Despite concern from interest groups concerned that CILS would take land and resources back for Native peoples, CILS soon developed a reputation for providing much-needed yet skilled legal services to California’s Native communities and formed a Board of Trustees. The Board, which still governs CILS today, grew to include a Native American majority and a California Supreme Court Justice, a future mayor, and a Congressman-turned-Senator.

During the 1970s, 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. Services grew to include drafting tribal constitutions and ordinances, tribal sovereignty and termination issues, and even a lawsuit that forced Lake County to retire the County Fair’s Indian mascot, Him-Konocti. Through these endeavors, more people came to appreciate the unique and often complex legal problems faced by Native Americans. Government agencies were now held accountable for fulfilling their obligations to a large and historically exploited cross-section of the population. Outgrowths of CILS eventually sprouted, including the Native American Rights Fund, a non-profit founded in 1970 with a nationwide service area.

In the 1980s, CILS continued to forge ahead as advocates for Native Americans intent on protecting the pristine forests of the Sacred High Country, the sacred center of the universe for Yurok, Karuk, Tolowa, and Hoopa people. The U.S. Forest Service sought to build a 400-mile logging road between the towns of Gasquet and Orleans, leading to the project being dubbed the “G-O Road.” Although the road threatened this ancient spiritual place, government attorneys and timber companies fiercely supported it. The presiding district court judge, Stanley Weigel, initially denied CILS’s application for a temporary restraining order preventing the final piece of the road from being built. Ultimately he sided with the Native interests after seeing photographs of the area and hearing hours of testimony of what the Sacred High Country meant to local tribes.

The last ten years have been especially productive for CILS. The organization instituted various workgroups to address issues specific to Native Americans, including the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA). Out of concern for Native families, CILS and other Native advocates fought the “existing Indian family” exception, which would have allowed ICWA to apply only in cases where the Indian children have significant political, cultural, or social ties to the tribes. CILS supported the enactment of California Senate Bill 678, which codified federal law into California statutes – ensuring that ICWA’s protections appear in state law. In addition, CILS has published several editions of the California Judge’s Benchguide on the Indian Child Welfare Act. CILS also assisted in achieving a re-authorization of TANF by educating tribal members and legislators about TANF programs and the unique needs of Native communities. Similarly, CILS advocated for a California-specific provision in the AIPRA to allow Natives with special Public Domain trust land interests to devise land in Indian Wills.

Tribal law enforcement and tribal courts have, in recent years, flourished within California tribal communities. CILS has led much of the trainings and conferences for California tribes developing their judicial systems. CILS work includes organizing five annual statewide tribal court conferences, drafting numerous tribal codes, including peace and security codes, moderating tribal police chief meetings, hosting tribal law enforcement roundtables, and offering other tribal justice assistance.

In the decades since its inception, CILS’s repertoire of legal services has also grown to include drafting wills for Native trust assets, petitioning courts to unseal birth records of individuals seeking information about their Native ancestry, and placing fee land into trust. Sometimes CILS steps outside the box and participates in unique cases that do not fit into the categories outlined above. CILS has acted as an advocate for graduating students wishing to display symbols of their cultural heritage and, on behalf of incarcerated Native Americans, denied their constitutional right to practice their religion by filing amicus curiae briefs.

Moving into the future, CILS continues to stay attuned to the changing needs of Native communities in California. Today four field offices (Bishop, Escondido, Eureka, and Sacramento) staffed by advocates including attorneys, paralegals, and intake workers serve fifty-eight counties throughout California and tribes outside the state.