Meet Colleen Echohawk: The ‘Peoples’ Candidate and Yours Too

By Iris M. Crawford, Joshua Adams Aug 02, 2021

Colleen Echohawk’s family taught her that as human beings, we are responsible for one another. This early lesson set Echohawk on a lifelong path of investigating the root causes of homelessness, a journey which began in rural Alaska, where she was born and raised, and continued when she moved to Seattle, Washington where she has lived for the last two decades. Driven by her responsibility to her fellow human beings, Echohawk is running to become Seattle’s next mayor — and if elected, she would become the City’s first Indigenous person to hold the title. For too long, Indigenous life and culture has been devalued and misrepresented, and Echohawk wants to change these notions by honoring and bringing the wisdom of Indigenous peoples and tribes to the forefront. 

Echohawk is an enrolled member of both the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and the Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake. In addition to tackling Seattle’s homelessness issue, Echohawk has served as the executive director of the Chief Seattle Club and is a commissioner of Seattle Community Police Commission, appointed by former mayor Ed Murrary. In both roles she has pushed for solutions on economic, racial and criminal injustice. Echohawk is working towards a vision of Seattle that uses a people-first approach rooted in police reform and public safety, food sovereignty, climate justice and more. Here, Echohawk discusses her People First Platform, why she became a pragmatic progressive, and how she plans to inspire a generation of truth tellers.

What was your position before deciding to run for mayor? 

Before I decided to announce my campaign to run for office, I was executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, which is a native-led human service agency and day center.  I resigned after I decided that if I am going to do this, I will do it all the way. My campaign has been running full time for the past four months. 

Working to help Seattle’s unhoused is one issue at the forefront of your plans. How did you get involved in working on this issue, especially as it pertains to your original community- Alaskan Native peoples

CE: I grew up in rural Alaska to two parents who were amazing people. They instilled in my siblings and I that we were responsible for one another as human beings. My dad would pick up hitchhikers in the middle of Alaska and sometimes they lived in our house. That’s how deep it went. When I moved out to Seattle, I always supported the homeless community in various capacities, such as in volunteer roles, working as a teacher’s assistant to homeless youth and as a board member at the Chief Seattle Club, which led to me eventually becoming director. It changed my life as I got to know hundreds of people experiencing homelessness while understanding the breadth of the issue here in Seattle. We have over 12,000 people experiencing homelessness with over 5,000 outside every night. These are not just numbers to me but babies, elders and people that I love and appreciate. 

Back home in Alaska, native people have some of the highest rates of homelessness. This is a symptom of the continued systemic racism that is a part of everyday life there. True equity requires us to look at the historical injustices and wrongdoings and try to understand how this is still impacting us today. On the policy side of things, I was almost always the only Native person and person of color at the table. I feel that this moment [ running for mayor] was my ancestors pushing me towards this work and following my value system to step up and support the community. This is why I am running for mayor. 

How do you balance the view often associated with the unhoused – yes, that people need access to stable and safe housing but also that it’s looked upon as a “blight” to the community? 

I believe that the unhoused of the city have the answers and they simply need the opportunity to get stabilized. As mayor, I look forward to the opportunity to share those stories and integrate better communication to our larger public about how we’re going to solve this issue. This is so our entire community can help solve this crisis together. 

In a recent Seattle Times piece, you pegged yourself as a pragmatic progressive- what does that mean to you?

To me, that means understanding the systems and knowing that it will not change overnight. As a pragmatic person, I know that we need laser focus to be able to make that shift. I also believe that I am exhausted by always having to be on the other side of the table. I hope to one day get to the point where I don’t have to be in this [pragmatic] mode anymore. 

Considering the current white supremacist attempt to push back against admitting to America’s true history, regarding critical race theory and more,  how do you mitigate and navigate these conversations? 

We’re really lucky here in Seattle to be largely progressive. We’re thinking about reparations, land banking and the ways in which we can right those systemic wrongs. I see myself as a truth teller. As someone who has worked in the trenches with the native community, who have collectively experienced so much trauma regarding historical injustices, my work is not just informed I am never separated from it. I grew up with aunties and uncles who were victims of the boarding school systems. I’ve seen and worked with members of the Chief Seattle Club whose homelessness is directly connected to that system. It’s all intertwined with my human experience. What impact will my candidacy and hopefully role as a mayor make on my children and children to come?  What does it mean to have Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior, who is also an Indigenous woman, in such a position?  

To you, what would it mean to be the first Indigenous mayor of Seattle?

I am not a Coast Salish tribal member [this includes territory of the Puget Sound, encompassing southeastern Vancouver Island and southern mainland British Columbia]. I am from the Pawnee Nation [federally recognized and based in Oklahoma] and Athabaskan [Alaska Native peoples] community. I am very conscious of that and will be striving to honor the leadership of the Coast Salish tribes in this region by making sure their communities are truly centered if I am elected. 

Iris M. Crawford is an environmental and climate justice journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her second love is arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter @IrisMCrawford
rnJoshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer,  journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua