Indigenous-people Advocate Recounts Journey from Rural Alaska to Seattle Mayor’s Race
An Alaska Native woman who grew up in the Interior is running for mayor of Seattle. Colleen Echohawk heads a Seattle nonprofit that helps and heals indigenous people in need by affirming their cultural identity while providing housing and job training. She says the holistic approach could be applied to uplift all the people of Seattle.
Colleen Echohawk began her journey 44 years ago in Fairbanks, where she was born, and then 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 says 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 a interview last week.
Diverse people like Echohawk’s dad, Howard, a Pawnee Indian who came to town in the 1970s to work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Her mom, Yvonne, was born in Kodiak and raised in Delta, where she helped run a family-owned motel.
Echohawk says 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,” she said, “he would say to us ‘You are a Pawnee, you are an Echohawk and you can do anything!’ ”
She gained an even greater appreciation of her identity when a similarly multicultural family moved-in next door. Yvonne said she and Howard sold the land to the new neighbors after the father, Fred John, got a job working for the pipeline.
“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.”
Echohawk says one of her strongest memories of those years was the John's family persistence in securing a key fishing rights in the Upper Copper River. Fred John's mother is Katie John, the fabled Ahtna Athabascan whose decades-long legal fight led to greater subsistence-fishing rights for Alaska Natives.
Echohawk says 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.
“They took us to Mentasta Lake, and we got to celebrate potlatches, we got to do hunting and fishing with them. We just got to live village life with them. And that was really a huge blessing.”
Yvonne Echohawk says those experiences helped Colleen appreciate the Athabascan culture’s emphasis on community and strong family ties. She and Colleen’s father, Howard, 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 ’em home and feed ’em and give ’em some money.”
During her teen-age years, Colleen’s interest in Alaska Native issues grew, nurtured by Ruby Hollembaek, a now-retired educator who ran the bilingual and Native Alaskan 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,” she said.
Hollembaek, an Inupiaq, says Colleen especially appreciated the Elders and Youth Conferences that are held along with the AFN get-togethers. And she seemed very interested in 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, y’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, living for a while in Hawaii 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 says 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 says that, and her appreciation of communities big and small, led to her decision last week to declare her run for mayor of Seattle.
Editor's note: This story has been revised and updated with additional information.