Lucille Echohawk's 'Big Vision': To Strengthen Communication Between Denver and Tribes

American Indians’ rural and city human services programs don’t have to be at odds in seeking government funds—an ongoing issue in many states.

In fact, Lucille Echohawk, Pawnee, recently appointed executive director of the nonprofit Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC), plans to act on her belief that closer connections between the two groups are vital to servicing both reservation and urban Native populations.

It’s in the spirit of DIFRC, whose mission is to “strengthen vulnerable American Indian children and families through collaborative and culturally responsive services.”

Echohawk’s “big vision,” she said, is to “bring about much closer communication with tribes" to coordinate service needs between Indian lands and cities, because people go back and forth between the two, and urban dwellers now constitute nearly 70 percent of the overall Native population, according to 2010 U.S. Census.

Echohawk would like to see what a “tribal/urban partnership would look like” for tribes with members who frequently travel between Indian lands and major cities. Denver—a tribal hub for Indian people from Lakota, Ute and Navajo reservations as well as from many other areas—could be an ideal location “for better coordination between urban programs and tribes” if funding becomes available, she said.

In a cash-strapped economy, public and private dollars for innovation—or even continuation—of Indian programs can be a problem.

“Like all nonprofits, the biggest challenge is not only the maintaining of funding levels for existing programs,” she said, but also meeting family support needs created by higher unemployment and other stresses in an ailing economy. "But, at the same time, I’m concerned we’ll also have more service needs and program services that require funding,” she said.

Echohawk has done extensive fund-raising in the private sector and has been a board member of Native Americans in Philanthropy; she hopes to put her skills to use for DIFRC.

She is on the development committee of the National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI) board of directors and is known locally and nationally in philanthropic circles.

“The organization [DIFRC] is in good shape, but any nonprofit is subject to the changes in the economic climate of the country,” she said. Nevertheless, there is “a period of stability to mount more energetic efforts to raise funds.”

DIFRC, founded in 2000 by community leaders, works with Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) clients and operates a number of other programs—one of which, centered on behavioral health, is directed by John Jewett, Oglala Lakota, former DIFRC executive director.

Other DIFRC programs include intensive ICWA case management and healthy living programs, including those centered on healthy foods and cooking, an afterschool kids club, exercise classes, a community garden, nurturing skills for families, and Strong Fathers & Strong Mothers.

Echohawk came to DIFRC from the Casey Family Programs, established by UPS founder Jim Casey in 1966 to improve foster care and the child welfare system, where she worked for 12 years as a senior ICWA specialist and later as strategic advisor.

In addition to her position on the NMAI board, she has been a board member of Denver Indian Center and the Child Welfare League of America. She has held leadership roles in the American Indian College Fund, Council of Energy Resource Tribes and George Bird Grinnell American Indian Children’s Fund, among many others.