In the first Seedcast podcast episode of 2021, Chief Seattle Club Executive Director Colleen Echohawk (Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma), who is currently running to be the first Indigenous mayor of Seattle, Washington. Colleen talks about how her Indigenous identity and the inspiring matriarchs in her life shaped her as a leader. Topics include Indigenous farming and Native Works’ Sovereignty Farm, Chief Seattle Club’s new Native housing project, seed keeping, and setting aside assumptions about others. Produced by Felipe Contreras, who shares some of his story as well; hosted by Jessica Ramirez.
Jessica Ramirez: Hi friends. We are back. This is Jessica Ramirez, coming to you from Coast Salish Territory. Welcome to our first official season of the Seedcast Podcast. The three episodes that we produced late last year were what we are calling our pilot season. Those episodes were really fun to pull together and test out. Did it work? Well, we think so. And we are thrilled to bring you new episodes. In the coming months, we will get to hear stories from Indigenous peoples from all over the world. The format might be a little different, but I'm the same me and I'm going to be sharing more of my story.
[Rooted by Mia Kami]
[00:01:10] [00:01:00] I moved to Seattle in a very surprising way. I never planned it, but as a 20 year old, it just felt right. I've been here for 17 years now. Before Nia Tero, I worked on regional housing and transportation policy. When I say those words, I think of someone who really knows a place. It took me a long time to know this place. Lots of conversations with community leaders, trust building, fighting the fight alongside them, lifting up the stories of environmental justice, food justice, farm workers rights. Our struggles are linked.
[00:01:49] In the very first episode of Seedcast, I shared about my Texas roots. Though Texas is very complicated, I totally claim that really [00:02:00] strange backwoods cousin. And as I became more entrenched in the Seattle social justice community, I found myself feeling a little guilty for not fighting for the same justice and rights as for the folks back in my hometown. Maybe I will get there one day. But what brings me peace is that our fights for justice are connected. These seeds grow roots. And those very jagged and complicated root systems link. So I believe the good work we do here is felt all over. And vice versa. It takes time.
[00:02:39] There are a lot of people helping me out here at Seedcast. Our podcast production team is growing and you'll get to meet them over the course of this season. And I would love to introduce to you all my co-producer, editor, sometimes tech guy, Felipe Contreras. Hey, Felipe.
Felipe Contreras: [00:02:57] Hey friend. Thanks for having me.
Jessica Ramirez: [00:03:00] [00:03:00] So you had a chance to meet today's guest, Colleen Echohawk. How was it? How was talking with Colleen?
Felipe Contreras: [00:03:07] Yeah. Interviewing Colleen Echohawk was nerve-racking. I hadn't met her before and she's done a lot. I was extremely fortunate while producing this episode, I got to learn so much. Especially about myself through Colleen. What's beautiful about this story to me is that it really showcases how other people's stories can provide that sort of insight about yourself.
[00:03:35] As for Colleen, she's an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation. She's lived here in Seattle for 24 years. She's the Executive Director of Chief Seattle Club. Chief Seattle Club is an organization here that works to improve the lives of the urban Native community. These days she's just running for mayor, like, okay. No wonder I was nervous. She's running for mayor on the city [00:04:00] that sits on Coast Salish and Duwamish territory. If she were to win, she'd be the first Indigenous mayor of Seattle. So right now she's extremely busy running her campaign. So I appreciate the opportunity to just be able to sit down and be present with her.
[00:04:17] By the way, I feel it's important to disclose that a few of us on the production team here at Seedcast have contributed to her campaign. And that Chief Seattle Club is a grantee of Nia Tero. Also, later in this episode, you may hear some sensitive stories about boarding schools. And I want everyone to be aware of that.
Jessica Ramirez: [00:04:43] I've known Colleen for a couple of years through my previous work and immediately when I met her and her husband Matt, I felt like I knew them. Like, you know, really have that kin connection. If any of you know Colleen, you might know what I'm talking about. And one would be so [00:05:00] lucky.
Felipe Contreras: [00:05:00] Definitely. Colleen is extremely inspirational. And since it was my first time meeting her, I was really just interested in finding out who she is and what she's like. And like most of us, it starts with how you introduce yourself.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:05:17] At the heart of who I am, I am an Indigenous woman. I am an Indigenous leader. I am an Indigenous mother and wife. I'm an Indigenous relative to my community here in Seattle. And everything I am connected to and am a part of is connected to that Indigeneity. It just cannot be denied because it's such an integral part of, of who I am. And I am first of all, and always, an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.
[00:05:53] And it's interesting because I never grew up in Oklahoma, nor did I grow up near other tribal members [00:06:00] aside from my dad and my siblings. I grew up in rural Alaska. And, you know, as a Native kid in a pretty white town, you know, experienced kind of, um, some, uh, dissonance there in, in just trying to figure out, you know, who I was as a, as a Native person.
[00:06:19] My parents were very, very good about saying constantly, every day, that you're Pawnee, you're Pawnee. You need to be proud to be Pawnee. And that was really affirmation in my life and it carries out into the work. It's so embedded in me that I am privileged and honored to be a part of the Pawnee Nation. And my children are as well. Like I, I remind them now as well. And when I think about the way that that impacts my work, it, it's- it- it causes it to be one that is filled with that connection, right? That understanding that my ancestors, you know, suffered a lot so that [00:07:00] I could be here.
Felipe Contreras: [00:07:08] While I sat there and listened to Colleen describe her heritage, the land she grew up on, and how her parents encouraged her to be extremely proud of her own Indigeneity, it made me think about the ways in which I introduce myself. Like what if I was being interviewed by somebody? I probably would've said something like, hi, I'm Felipe Contreras. I'm an Associate Producer for Nia Tero. I work on projects like Seedcast. I grew up in Los Angeles, California. I went to school and also now live in Seattle. And I'm Puerto Rican and Salvadorian. But while listening to Colleen, that just doesn't feel like it sits right with me. And I'm starting to rethink that.
[00:07:55] Colleen is an amazing storyteller. And the stories [00:08:00] that kept coming up all involved important matriarchs in her family.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:08:06] And then I've had teachers in my life who have continued to express the importance of sovereignty.
Felipe Contreras: [00:08:12] Specifically she talked about two of them. She told me a story about her aunt Deborah Echohawk. Others may know her as Debbie.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:08:20] And she's a traditional seed keeper.
Felipe Contreras: [00:08:22] Aunt Debbie founded a stewardship project that went around collecting seeds of traditional Pawnee plants and food.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:08:29] She had started to try to find our old seeds that our, our relatives brought with us from Nebraska and Kansas, they brought with them to Oklahoma. But they wouldn't grow in, in Oklahoma.
Felipe Contreras: [00:08:39] So she began taking these seeds and documenting them, planting them. All these seeds were on the brink of extinction. So she had the intent to reintroduce them back to the traditional Pawnee lands where they come from, Nebraska and Kansas. She feared that her people would never eat their traditional food again. And [00:09:00] that really motivated her to get out there and do this work.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:09:02] And she started going to people and asking, like, hey, do you have any- do you know where any of those seeds are? Are they in your garage? Are they in your shed in the back? Or are they a part of, like, some of your old things that came from Pawnee in Nebraska? And she started finding some. And she has now brought back many seeds into our community and has a partnership with some really amazing people in Nebraska where, in Nebraska, our seeds are back there and they're growing. And they're being nurtured by, um, friends of, of the Pawnee Nation.
Felipe Contreras: [00:09:35] This is where you really can draw the connection between the energy and efforts of her family to her ancestors, all the way through Colleen's own efforts at Chief Seattle Club. Especially their latest effort, Sovereignty Farm. But we'll come back to that in a little bit.
[00:09:52] Colleen grew up in Alaska. She was adopted into an Ahtna and Athabascan community. This is where [00:10:00] her grandma, Katie John, comes into the story.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:10:03] One of the biggest teachers has been my Grandma Katie, who I mentioned earlier that I was adopted into the Ahtna and Athabascan community. And so I was very fortunate to get to be, um, a part of Grandma Katie's family. She can tell stories about meeting her first white person and having, you know, refined sugar for the first time. And all of these firsts in her life. And she also could tell you a lot of really sad stories of her family and how she overcame those sad things that happened to her, including her children being sent to boarding school where she didn't see some of them for a couple of years.
[00:10:41] One, one thing I always think about with her around boarding schools is, she wasn't sure if- when they would come back if they would remember her language. Because they- when they left, they only spoke Athabascan. And they were beaten and abused if they spoke their language and were forced to speak English. And some were little, right? [00:11:00] And would they remember? Would they remember the traditional language? And so she learned English in order to, you know, combat that fear.
[00:11:09] And just over and over and over she showed such resilience, flexibility to the times. [laughs] You know, of like, okay, this is coming at us. And we're gonna have to adapt. She showed such ability to adapt. I think about that all the time.
Felipe Contreras...: [00:11:29] Colleen shows so much appreciation for her Grandma Katie. This is evident when she shared to me her story about the time her grandma took on the Alaskan government.
Colleen Echohawk...: [00:11:38] One of the ways that they had to adapt was in the 1950s, the Alaska Fish and Wildlife, the gaming group, the said, "Hey, you guys are not allowed to fish on your traditional fish camp anymore. And, you know, you have to follow our rules and regulations." And of course fishing was just such a- and salmon were such an important part [00:12:00] of the culture. But, um, she adapted, you know? She got used to commodity foods. And she learned how to, you know, adapt to Western and colonized methods of cooking and all of that, right?
[00:12:13] But in the early 90s, there was discussion, um, and, and actually my dad played a part in this and, um, some relatives of mine with the Native American Rights Fund. They said, "Hey, this is- this is crazy. Like this is your land, your tradition, your way of life that is directly connected to salmon. And it is your sovereignty." And so she started a court case called Katie John versus the State of Alaska. And they started, like, fighting for the rights to hunt and fish in the traditional ways, in the ways to take care of the community.
Jessica Ramirez: [00:12:50] So what you're saying is Colleen's grandma literally took on the State of Alaska?
Felipe Contreras: [00:12:57] Exactly. [laughing] Literally. The court case [00:13:00] went all the way up to the Governor of Alaska, who would then decide whether or not it would move on to the US Supreme Court. It was a legal fight for land sovereignty. And Colleen's Grandma Katie did something that Colleen does today. She reached across the aisle so to speak to show the governor firsthand what was at stake for the Athabascan people.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:13:23] She said, you know, he doesn't know us. He doesn't know us. He doesn't know who we are. He doesn't know, he doesn't know us. And she invited him to come to fish camp. Governor Tony Knowles came to fish camp and then that night he spent several hours talking to my grandma about her traditional ways, hearing her stories, hearing about, you know, the way that we've always participated in, in hunting and fishing and, and what it might mean to the community. And the next day he called and he said, "There's no way. There's no way I can fight this anymore. I know you now. I know your story. I know your heart. I know [00:14:00] why you're doing this work and I will not fight this at the supreme court [laughing] and, and the State of Alaska will back down."
Jessica Ramirez: [00:14:08] Wow. [laughs] I wish I could've been a fly on that wall on that camp trip.
Felipe Contreras: [00:14:12] That makes two of us. If only we could've been. But here's what former governor of Alaska, Tony Knowles, had to say after his decision. "I think anyone that would talk to Katie John and to look at what she does would believe that what she does is right."
Colleen Echohawk: [00:14:30] I have learned so much about hospitality and generosity from my Grandma Katie and, uh, my Auntie Nora and my cousin Catherine and Anita and, and other, other community members in that village about just total generosity to, to people that you don't know. You know, many, many people in this city, in Seattle, don't know the neighbor community or they don't know the homeless community. And, and vice versa.
[00:14:57] I'm a- I'm a board member of the [00:15:00] Seattle Foundation [laughing] and sometimes I'm sitting next to these folks who are like multi, multi-millionaires, maybe billionaire- I don't know. And I'm thinking, wow, I, I, I have to watch all of my assumptions 'cause I don't know them. I don't know what's really in their heart. I don't really know what they're thinking or what they're doing. Or, or- you know, and I have to put aside my a- assumptions and work on relationship so that we can find ways to, to work together.
Felipe Contreras: [00:15:27] Grandma Katie's resilience and the impression it has left on Colleen makes me reflect on the strong matriarchs in my life. Especially my grandmas. They both worked hard to overcome their own traumas, all in the pursuit to provide a better life for their children.
Jessica Ramirez: [00:15:44] I'd love to hear what came up for you.
Felipe Contreras: [00:15:46] Yeah, Jess. Well, my Grandma Helen came to the US seeking asylum from a civil war in El Salvador. And my Grandma Lydia moved halfway across the country to start her life over after experiencing abuse. [00:16:00] They were both single moms raising four kids, far from home.
[00:16:05] As a kid I remember spending most of my summers pulling weeds with my Grandma Lilly. And trust me, it wasn't because [laughing] I was an angel. My mom guilted me into it. I wasn't a big fan of work or dirt. And like you, Jess, it's hot where I come from. But honestly, it was really worth it. My Grandma Lilly told the best stories. Stories about what it was like growing up in Laves, Puerto Rico. Stories about my great grandmother who was a musician in Brooklyn in the 1950s. And stories about my Tio Tony, who I never had the privilege of meeting. Stories that she carries in her heart. And stories that I now carry in mine.
[00:16:52] In the summer of 2019, I was an intern here in Washington State on a farm. Because of my time on that farm and the [00:17:00] time I spent helping my grandma weed, I was especially keen to learn more from Colleen about Chief Seattle Club's Native Works Sovereignty Farm.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:17:09] And our goal is, is to grow, um, Indigenous food that we will then put back into our kitchen at the Chief Seattle Club. And, um, we're also opening a café in the fall with the opening of one of our new buildings. And so we're really excited about getting, um, our relatives hands in the dirt. Um, and getting them the opportunity to learn a skill. And also to provide a place for healing.
[00:17:34] There is so much healing that happens as you farm, as you grow, as you again are nurtured. Out there on Sovereignty Farms, we're just so excited about the opportunity for our, our folks to, to get- to be able to literally put seeds in the ground and see growth and, and feed the community. That's the other, like, thrilling thing to me. It's like, wow, we're gonna be able to grow, like, squash and beans and corn. And some of the [00:18:00] traditional foods from our here. Camus root and nettle. And we're gonna be able to get these delicious nutrients into the hearts and bodies of our relatives at the Chief Seattle Club. We're thrilled.
Felipe Contreras: [00:18:12] And for Colleen, it always comes back to her ancestors.
Colleen Echohawk [00:18:15] I come from people who experienced a lot of really hard, hard things. Our, our original homelands were in Kansas and Nebraska, the Pawnee Nation. And we had a thriving community there. Thriving agricultural community. And we, um, moved to Oklahoma. The ancestors called Oklahoma, just the translation was, the hot place. Because it was very inhospitable. Um, many of our seeds and, and the, and the plants that we took with us to Oklahoma would not grow there. And, along the way, we lost thousands and thousands and thousands of people. And finally in ni- 1910, there was like about 600 of us left. So that's- tho- [00:19:00] that's who I come from. Those are my community. Those are my ancestors who have really allowed me to be in the space that I'm at- in right now. And I think about them all the time. I think about what, what they suffered through so that I could be here. I honor them. I respect them. I ask for their guidance in my work. And know that I represent them.
Felipe Contreras: [00:19:26] As the Executive Director of Chief Seattle Club, Colleen works on issues pertaining to land sovereignty, unemployment and food security. One day her colleague said something that really struck her.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:19:37] And he said to me, "You know, Colleen, before 1492, there was no homelessness [laughing] in this country." You know? And I, I love that. I say it all the time. Because it's very, very true that colonization brought with it this, uh, idea of what home and housing is. And we have had that one idea for, you know, hundreds of years now in this [00:20:00] country. And so when I get to work with our homeless relatives here in Seattle, I think of them as those amazing seeds.
[00:20:09] If you're experiencing homelessness, it's hard to get stable, of course 'cause you're- y- you're- you may be working and then you've gotta go and like, you know, work with your case manager to try to find permanent housing. And then you gotta go stand in line for food. And then you gotta go stand in line for a shower. Stand in line for a shelter bed, if you're lucky. Or if you're not lucky then, you know, figure out where you're gonna sleep that night. And so being homeless takes a lot of work. It's like a lot of ongoing trauma and then there's just not a lot of free time to, to do, to do what you'd like to do.
[00:20:36] So I think about within each one of those humans that we get to, to, to love and to serve, like what do they have to offer if they were nurtured, if they were planted in the right kind of soil where they could grow? And a lot of that is housing. You can't grow without housing. You can't- you can't become stable without housing. You can't deal with like your trauma without secure [00:21:00] housing.
Felipe Contreras: [00:21:01] Chief Seattle Club is opening a landmark housing project this October in Pioneer Square. It's called al-al, which is a Lushootseed word for home. It will be a place for urban Native relatives to connect and find stability. It's designed by Native people, for Native people. It will open this October of 2021. It includes seven floors of housing and will also be a place that will provide healthcare and other social services for over 2700 people a year.
Jessica Ramirez: [00:21:33] I'm really loving this spirit of connectivity. With her family and with the people she grew up with. But it seems also with the community she lives and works in now.
Felipe Contreras: [00:21:43] Exactly, Jess. It's our environment that let's us thrive and be and explore who we want to be without worrying about the basic necessities of life. That's exactly what I believe Colleen is trying to provide here in Seattle.
Colleen Echohawk: [00:21:57] Any given night, three to 5000 [00:22:00] people are sleeping outside. And, and many others are in shelter. You know, somewhere around 12,000 people. 12,000 people in our region who are experiencing homelessness. Imagine if we could get them inside. Imagine if we could get them stable and what they would contribute to our community. They don't have a chance to breathe, to nurture, to grow when they're not in housing. So I am excited about the opportunities of getting our houseless relatives into homes, into stability. And, and what might they do? I mean, I don't know. They have, they have some solutions that we, as a community, need.
Felipe Contreras: [00:22:32] So for Colleen it goes beyond just supporting those who need a home, or a job, or food. It's about supporting them so they can support us right back. That really struck me. The idea that houselessness is more than just needing a home. It's needing time. It's needing nourishment. Time to just be, heal. Time to grow. An environment everyone needs.
Jessica Ramirez: [00:23:01] [00:23:00] Thanks for sharing these stories, Felipe.
Felipe Contreras: [00:23:04] No, thank you, Jess, for listening. I really enjoyed this process of getting to know Colleen. She's extremely rooted into the history of her ancestors and her purpose. And that clearly reflected through her work.
[00:23:17] Remember at the beginning of this episode when I was questioning how I might introduce myself in the future and how that just wasn't sitting right when I did it originally? Through Colleen as inspiration, here's where I've landed.
[00:23:29] Who am I? I am Felipe Contreras. I grew up in Highland Park, a barrio of Los Angeles, California. I am a grandson, a son, a brother, a tio, an artist, a farmer, a partner and a friend. Working 'til the end of each day to honor the resilient, hard-working and spirited Puerto Rican and Salvadorian people I come from. I currently work and love and am still growing on the lands of the Coast Salish peoples. And I am a producer and [00:24:00] editor for the Seedcast podcast by Nia Tero. If we haven't already, I hope we meet in person some day.
Jessica Ramirez: [00:24:08] Felipe, thank you so much. But also for sharing your own stories. I get to work with you pretty much every day and I do consider you a friend. And I still go to learn some new, beautiful things about you. I'm excited to hear your voice more on the podcast soon.
Felipe Contreras: [00:24:23] Come on, Jess. [laughing] You know I learned from the best. This was fun.
Jessica Ramirez: [00:24:32] Thanks also to Colleen Echohawk for sharing her time and her life with us for this episode. And thank you for listening. If you like what you hear, give us a review on your favorite podcast platform to help us find new listeners. Or consider sharing this episode with a friend.
[00:24:49] We'll be back in two weeks and we're going to take you around the world to Guyana and the Philippines.
[00:24:59] To learn more about this podcast [00:25:00] and our work at Nia Tero, please visit our website, neaterro.org. And follow Nia Tero on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
[00:25:10] This episode was produced by Felipe Contreras and edited by Julie Keck. Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Our senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Our social media manager is Hannah Penteleo. And I am your host, Jessica Ramirez.
[00:25:26] We look forward to sharing more stories with you soon.
[00:25:38] [Rooted by Mia Kami] [00:26:00]