Indigenous advocate Colleen Echohawk recounts journey from Interior Alaska to Seattle mayor’s race

Colleen Echohawk is executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, an organization that helps the city’s Indigenous people in need. (Credit Colleen Echohawk via Facebook)

Colleen Echohawk, a Native American woman who grew up in the Interior, is running for mayor of Seattle.

Echohawk heads a Seattle nonprofit that focuses on helping and healing Indigenous people in need by affirming their cultural identity while providing housing and job training. She said the holistic approach could be applied to uplift all the people of Seattle.

Echohawk began her journey 44 years ago in Fairbanks, where she was born, and then in Delta Junction, where she was raised. She concedes it may seem unlikely that a passionate advocate for Indigenous peoples’ rights would grow up in a small Army town with very few Alaska Native residents. But she said it’s where she first gained an appreciation for community.

“There is a lot of diversity in the little towns because it is such a place where diverse people come and live the Alaskan experience,” she said in an interview last week.

Diverse people include those like Echohawk’s dad, Howard, a Pawnee Indian who came to town in the 1970s to work for the pipeline. Her mom, Yvonne, was raised in Delta where she helped run a family-owned motel.

Echohawk said her father taught her and her seven brothers and sisters that they should be proud of her heritage, and learn more about it.

“Every day he would say to us, ‘You are a Pawnee; you are an Echohawk and you can do anything!” she said.

She gained an even greater appreciation of her identity when the Echohawks moved-in next door to a similarly multicultural family, whose last name was John.

“We were so lucky to grow up with another Native family, with a Native father and a white mother,” she said. “And we had the same exact experience in my family. So it was incredibly wonderful to get to grow up alongside the John family.”

The family name comes from the father, Fred John, who’s the son of Katie John, the fabled Ahtna Athabascan whose decades-long legal fight led to greater subsistence fishing rights for Alaska Natives. Echohawk said she was inspired by Katie John’s determination to win the case.

“We had the incredible privilege of seeing her fighting for subsistence,” she said. “We had the incredible privilege and honor for her to call us her grandchildren and for us to call her Grandma Katie.”

The bonds between the Echohawks and the Johns grew closer growing up together and spending weekends and summers at Mentasta Lake Village, where the John family came from.

“We got to celebrate potlatches. We got to do hunting and fishing with them,” she said. “We just got to live village life with them, and that was really a huge blessing.”

Yvonne Echohawk said those experiences helped Colleen appreciate the Athabascan culture’s emphasis on community and strong family ties. She and Colleen’s father taught her to have compassion for people in need of help by among other things picking up hitchhikers.

“Mostly just Native Americans, Alaska Natives, that he would pick up and bring them home and feed them and give them some money,” Yvonne Echohawk said.

During her teenage years, Collen Echohawks’s interest in Alaska Native issues grew, nurtured by Ruby Hollembaek. Hollembaek is a retired educator who ran the bilingual and Native education program at Delta Junction High School.

“We would take kids to Native American, Alaska Native events such as the Alaska Federal of Native conference,” Hollembaek said.

Hollembaek, an Inupiaq, said Echohawk especially appreciated the Elders and Youth conferences that are held along with the annual Alaska Federation of Natives get-togethers. And she seemed very interested in the debate over resolutions adopted during conferences that state Alaska Native positions on those issues.

“She was just very smart and very reflective,” Hollembaek said. “Not full of herself, you know, just a real, genuine person.”

After she graduated from high school in 1994, Echohawk went to college, earned degrees, then traveled around the country and abroad. She lived in Hawaii for a while before settling in Seattle in 2003. There she worked for the American Indian Heritage Middle College before taking a job with the Chief Seattle Club, an organization that helps urban Native people in need. She’s now the organization’s executive director.

“We’re building housing that will really work for the Native community,” Echohawk said. “And also, really lifting up those folks who currently are experiencing a lot of trauma because of their homelessness and the pandemic.”

Echohawk said the success of the Seattle Club’s program has convinced her that its holistic approach to helping and healing disadvantaged people could help others, especially people of color. She said that, and her appreciation of communities big and small led to her decision last week to declare her run for mayor of Seattle.

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