Listen to a conversation with Crystal Echo-Hawk
“It is desperately important that we continue to organize as we face the onslaught of white supremacy and the forces that are just tearing our country apart. When it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to vote, there’s something deeply, deeply wrong in this country.” — Crystal Echo-Hawk
Crystal Echo-Hawk is an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation, and the founder and CEO of IllumiNative, the first national Native led nonprofit committed to amplifying contemporary Native voices. Prior to starting IllumiNative, she led Reclaiming Native Truth, the largest public opinion research and strategy setting initiative ever conducted for, and about, Native Americans.
Crystal and I met in 2020, when she joined Marya Bangee, Fabianna Rodriguez, and Tracy Sturdivant to launch CultureSurge, one of the most successful mobilizing efforts of organizers, artists, and culture-makers to get out the vote safely and securely. Crystal and I connected this week to talk about her life journey and her work at the intersection of culture and community power. Listen to our conversation here.
Below are edited excerpts of my conversation with Crystal Echo-Hawk
Q. Crystal, could you start by sharing your findings from the Reclaiming Native Truth research, what you heard from Native communities, and how this work inspired you to start IllumiNative?
A. I think our biggest finding was that invisibility is one of the greatest threats we face as Native peoples. And that’s a big statement, given some of the challenges that our community faces. We found that nearly 80% of Americans know little to nothing about Native peoples, and 72% rarely or never encounter any information about us. This is perpetuated by big systems, such as K-12 education, in which 90% of the schools don’t teach about Native Americans past 1900. So generation after generation of Americans are literally conditioned to think that we’re of an ancient past and don’t exist today.
For Native Americans, when we saw this data, it helped us so much. It was empowering, because we constantly walk through life feeling that invisibility, but we constantly think it’s our own individual circumstances and situations. Understanding that it’s about big systems was empowering, because we could see that we need to disrupt and interrupt that invisibility.
Invisibility serves to dehumanize us. When somebody can’t see you, they can’t empathize with you. They don’t understand you and you don’t exist. Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Peoples, and it needs to be an urgent priority for us to completely dismantle that invisibility and fight for our visibility as contemporary Native Peoples.
On the flip side of invisibility, representation of Native communities on TV, film and other media are either based on pre-1900 or are rooted in very problematic tropes that we are nothing more than alcoholics, mired in poverty and dysfunction. And with Native women, if they do show up at all, they’re often being brutalized. Our women don’t even typically make it to the end of this story.
Our invisibility, combined with those toxic stereotypes, fuel racism; they fuel bias. And those have real-world consequences against our people. To fight invisibility, we need to share our contemporary Native voices, stories and issues in order to fight against racism, to fight against all the systematic discrimination that we face. We need to disrupt and interrupt this invisibility, smash toxic stereotypes and false narratives about us in order to build power for our people and to advance equity and justice.
Q. Can you share about the fight to force national sports teams to change their racist names and stop using offensive mascots?
A. As most people hopefully know, in 2020 we had a huge victory for Native Peoples, with the Washington football team finally dropping its racist, dictionary defined racial slur, that was their team name. That fight had been going on for more than three decades by thousands of Native American activists, important Native leaders like Suzan Harjo, who is one of the grandmothers of the movement against mascots, and Amanda Blackhorse, who is an amazing and fierce advocate.
We knew this was an important issue we needed to tackle, but it’s a hard issue. When we did our polling, Americans were really stuck on this notion that the sport’s mascots honored our experiences. We were being constantly told by non-Native people that we didn’t understand that we were being honored. What happened with the Washington football team would have never happened, unfortunately, without the murder of George Floyd.
When George Floyd was murdered we saw the start of a reckoning with systemic racism. I’ll never forget that controversial day. It was #Blackout Tuesday, when a lot of people posted black squares statements, and the Washington football team posted ‘we stand against systemic racism.’ In response, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and [then] Congresswoman Deb Haaland wrote that if they were really against racism, they should change their name! Once that happened, we jumped in and worked with artists, and because of COVID, leaned into digital organizing. We went after their sponsors, big companies like Nike, Bank of America and FedEx to generate public pressure against the financial ecosystem supporting their racist name. We joined forces with First Peoples Worldwide, led by the Native leader Carla Fredericks, to apply pressure on investors. That’s what helped to tip it. There were thousands of people that were part of this effort, and we’re really happy that we were able to be a part of this significant victory for our people.
Q. Can you share about the amazing engagement and organizing you did in response to COVID-19 and for the 2020 presidential election?
A. I’ve spent so much time reflecting on that feeling of just, ‘this is the stuff of movies’, and understanding how bad it was. We were getting early reports about how there were less than a hundred ventilators all across the Indian Country health care system. And we had no access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or testing. In the early days of the first Cares Act, we weren’t even included.
I really began to understand that invisibility was a matter of life or death.
We needed to amplify stories, not only about the impact of COVID, but how we were addressing it. A lot of people don’t know that the Tribes took an early leadership role in shutting down their borders, going on lockdown, doing those types of measures. People only wanted to talk about how the Navajo didn’t have running water, and how poor and pitiful they are. What they missed was the absolute brilliance of grassroots organizers. When the federal government failed in its federal trust responsibility to show up and provide the necessary assistance, grassroots community members self-organized, they raised money, they got water and PPE and everything they needed for the people across Indian Country. We organized to get resources and assistance to protect our communities. We knew that we had to organize hard to ensure the visibility for our people.
As we came into the election cycle, the dominant narrative about Native Peoples is that our vote doesn’t really matter, that we’re a small insignificant population. I think even within the progressive movement, most actually ignore the Native vote. When you’re talking about natural allies that don’t see the importance of our vote, that hurts. We partnered in a couple of different ways. First we partnered with Native Organizers Alliance, the Center for Native American Youth, and also the University of Michigan to conduct the largest survey of native peoples ever done. We had 6,400 Native peoples that participated from all 50 States and 401 Tribes. We wanted to survey the impact of COVID, to understand what were the most critical and urgent issues facing Native communities, especially as they thought about the election.
We asked about voting behavior and barriers to voting. We found that actually our people are incredibly engaged and have high voter turnout. We had seen over 70% turnout, based on the survey from the previous election. Key issues that surfaced for people were everything from COVID, to protecting our elders, to access to quality health care, and to protecting our women and girls and LGBTQ communities from violence. So we began to understand what issues were going to motivate our people to the polls. From there, we devised a narrative and culture change strategy, and founded Natives Vote 2020 with the Native Organizer’s Alliance.
We mobilized, we registered thousands of new Native voters, and there were great stories about some voters in their seventies and eighties that were voting for the first time, right along with young people. We saw historic turnout in places like Arizona, Nevada, and Michigan. That was really important. We weren’t surprised when we saw the outcome. We knew our people were going to turn out. I’m so excited because I think for the first time in this country, there was an acknowledgement that the Native vote does matter, especially when we’re operating in an environment where razor thin margins can determine the outcome.
Q. What do you see as the work ahead?
A. When we think about the work ahead, our driving force is how do we build power for our people. We feel incredible momentum coming off of 2020. Despite the fact that it was a horrifying year on so many levels, it was also an odd year in that there were so many victories in terms of Native representation, from the Washington football team named change, the Cleveland baseball team name change, to the outcome of the election, and the native vote. We have six new Native American members in Congress.
We are focused on the power of narrative and culture change work, but its power only comes alive when it is combined with grassroots organizing. How do we deepen bridges with movement groups? We need both to truly affect change in significant ways. We are continuing to do more audience research so that we can better understand the minds of Americans on how we move them on Native issues.
It is desperately important that we continue to organize as we face the onslaught of white supremacy and the forces that are just tearing our country apart. When it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to vote, there’s something deeply, deeply wrong in this country.