Seedcast: Colleen Echohawk on Family and Inspiration

by Felipe Contreras

Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have celebrated storytelling as a way to connect the present to past lessons and future dreaming. Narrative sovereignty is a form of land guardianship, and Nia Tero supports this work through its storytelling initiatives, including the Seedcast podcast, as well as in this column for media partner the South Seattle Emerald.

On March 24, my colleagues and I on Nia Tero’s Seedcast team will release the first episode of our new season of the podcast, featuring an interview with Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club. Colleen is an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, and she is also adopted into the Ahtna/Athabaskan community where she grew up in Mentasta Lake, Alaska. I was honored to interview Colleen for the episode, which is focused on Colleen’s exploration of what shaped her into the leader she is today, with an emphasis on her Indigenous heritage.

Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club. Image courtesy of Chief Seattle Club.

At Chief Seattle Club, Colleen works on issues pertaining to land sovereignty, unemployment, and food security. When I interviewed her for the podcast, Colleen talked about Chief Seattle Club’s work with Sovereignty Farm, a new seed to table social enterprise providing opportunities for Indigenous elders, apprentices, artisans, and farmers to grow and serve traditional foods at the Chief Seattle Club day center, as well as the café that will be available to the public in Chief Seattle Club’s ?ál?al building. ?ál?al, which is the Lushootseed word for “Home,” is a landmark housing project featuring nine floors of housing, health care, and social services for over 2,700 people annually. ?ál?al is scheduled to open in Pioneer Square next to Smith Tower in late 2021.

Rendering of the ?ál?al (“Home”) building by Notions Workshop. The Welcome Figure depicted in the rendering is based on an existing work by Shaun Peterson (Puyallup). From the Chief Seattle Club Website.

Please enjoy a sneak peek at Seedcast’s upcoming episode with Colleen Echohawk, produced by me and hosted by my friend and colleague Jessica Ramirez. It is important to note that the interview below includes mention of U.S. government-sanctioned residential boarding schools for Indigenous children that existed from the 1860s through the late 1970s, as well as the abuse that occurred therein. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club. Image courtesy of Chief Seattle Club.

“One of the most important teachers in my life has been my Grandma Katie. She could tell stories about meeting her first white person and having refined sugar for the first time … all of these firsts in her life. And she also could tell you a lot of really sad stories about her family and how she overcame those things that happened to her, including her children being sent to boarding school, after which she didn’t see some of them for a couple of years. 

“When her children were taken away to boarding schools, she wasn’t sure if they would remember her language, Athabaskan, when they returned. In the schools, they were beaten and abused if they spoke their language. In order to combat the fear of not being able to talk to or be understood by her children, Grandma Katie learned English. She showed such resilience and flexibility, as if to say, ‘This is coming at us, and we’re going to have to adapt.’ I think about that all the time.

“Grandma Katie also had to adapt in the 1950s, when the Alaska fishing, wildlife, and gaming authorities said, ‘Hey, you guys are not allowed to fish on at your traditional fish camp anymore. You have to follow our rules and regulations.’ Of course, fishing for salmon and more was an important part of the culture. But again, Grandma Katie adapted. She got used to commodity foods, and she adapted to Western and colonized methods of cooking.

“However, in the early ’90s, the issue of traditional fishing came up again amongst relatives who said, ‘This is your land, your tradition. Your way of life is directly connected to salmon. That is your sovereignty.’ So Grandma Katie embarked on a court case: Katie John v. State of Alaska. She started fighting for the rights to hunt and fish in the traditional ways in order to take care of the community.

“Eventually, it was up to the Governor of Alaska to decide if the case was going to go all the way up to the Supreme Court. Grandma Katie said, ‘He doesn’t know us. He doesn’t know who we are. He doesn’t know us.’ So she invited him to come to fish camp.

“The night Governor Tony Knowles came to fish camp, he spent several hours talking to my grandma about her traditional ways, hearing her stories, hearing about what hunting and fishing mean to the Athabaskan community. The next day the governor called and said, ‘There’s no way I can fight this anymore. I know you now. I know your story. I know your heart. I know why you’re doing this work. The State of Alaska will back down.’”

Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club. Image courtesy of Chief Seattle Club.

I can’t wait for you to hear the full episode, which comes out on March 24, 2021. Here’s a trailer for the new season of the podcast. Until then, I invite you to subscribe to Seedcast on your favorite podcast platform, and catch up on previous episodes.

Editor’s Note: Colleen Echohawk announced her run for mayor of Seattle in 2021 on Jan. 25. Learn more about her campaign in our article on her announcement.

Felipe Contreras comes from a proud Puerto Rican/Salvadoran family and is a photographer, media maker, and storyteller.

Featured Image: Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club.  Image courtesy of Chief Seattle Club.

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