Indigenous advocate Colleen Echohawk’s journey from rural Alaska to Seattle Mayor’s race

A whoman in a dark green jacket smiles in front of a glass window
Colleen Echohawk is executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, an organization that helps the city’s Indigenous people in need. (Colleen Echohawk)

Colleen Echohawk is a member of Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake. She grew up in the Interior, and she’s running to be the first Indigenous mayor of Seattle. 

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

Echohawk was born 44 years ago in Fairbanks, and raised in Delta Junction. She said 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 it’s where she first gained an appreciation for community.

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

Diverse people like Echohawk’s dad, Howard, 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, who is Pawnee, taught her and her seven brothers and sisters they should be proud of their 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 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,” she said. “With a Native father and a white mother, 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 father, Fred John, son of Katie John, the fabled Ahtna Athabascan whose decades-long legal fight helped Alaska Native people maintain subsistence-fishing rights. Echohawk said she was inspired by Katie John’s determination to win her 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 tightened as they grew up together, spending weekends and summers at Mentasta Lake Village, where the John family came from.

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

Yvonne Echohawk said those experiences helped her daughter appreciate the Athabascan culture’s emphasis on community and strong family ties. She and her husband taught Echohawk to have compassion for people in need.

During her teenage 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 Federation of Natives conference,” she said.

Hollembaek, who is Iñupiaq, said Echohawk especially appreciated the Elders and Youth Conferences held along with AFN. And she seemed very interested in debates on the resolutions adopted during conference, stating Alaska Native positions on critical issues.

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

After graduating from high school in 1994, Echohawk earned her degree, then traveled around the country and abroad, living in Hawaii before settling in Seattle in 2003. She worked for the American Indian Heritage Middle College before taking a job with the Chief Seattle Club, an organization helping urban Native people in need. She’s now the executive director.

“We’re building housing that will really work for the Native community,” Echohawk said. “And 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 program has convinced her its holistic approach to helping and healing disadvantaged people could work for others, especially people of color. She said her work and appreciation of communities big and small led to the decision last week to declare her run for mayor of Seattle.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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