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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

Colleen Echohawk launched a campaign Monday to lead Seattle as its mayor, running on a platform of transformation; rethinking justice, mental health and the city’s common purpose.

Echohawk, Pawnee and Athabascan, is executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit that serves homeless Native Americans. Echohawk led the development of $100 million in affordable housing for Native Americans, non-Natives and veterans; improved access to health care and social services or her constituency; and is creating economic opportunities through a farm-to-table Indigenous foods program and a café/art gallery.

If elected, the eighth and 18th largest cities in the U.S. would be led by mayors who are Indigenous: Todd Gloria, Tlingit, in San Diego, California (population 1.4 million); and Echohawk, Seattle (population 725,000). Mayor Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney, is not running for reelection. 

“Colleen has vision, leadership experience and an inherent ability to build successful coalitions powered by love and tradition,” Seattle School Board President Zachary DeWolf, Chippewa Cree, said in the announcement of Echohawk’s candidacy. “I’ve worked alongside her as she has championed change in housing, homelessness, racial justice, a sustainable environment, just policing, and a more livable city for Seattle’s families and neighbors. Restoring Indigenous leadership to our region is a fitting antidote to 2020. She is the perfect candidate for this moment.”

Echohawk said she is running for mayor because she wants the city to “rethink how it works, and who it works for.”

“Our common purpose may be frayed but it isn’t broken, and if we take a people-first approach to renewal then we can become as transformative as our communities demand us to be,” she said in her campaign announcement. “We can become a city where essential workers can afford to live. But to do that, we have to acknowledge that the path we’re on isn’t working.”

Echohawk’s platform includes:

  • Equity in city contracting. “Many of the most promising solutions to displacement and economic injustice are already taking place within Seattle neighborhoods,”Echohawk said in her campaign announcement. “These community assets deserve support from City Hall, not an obstruction to progress. One example is in our city procurement practices: Seattle has $1.11 billion right now in current capital projects, but those contracts and profit aren’t going to [businesses led by] people of color.”
  • Policing reform. Echohawk proposes establishing a Department of Public Safety staffed by community-based mental health workers and neighborhood liaisons to respond to calls regarding mental health emergencies and homelessness. It would be a separate agency from the police department but the two would work closely together, a campaign representative said. 

“We need people to help us care for our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness and folks that have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19,” Echohawk said. “Those jobs should be filled by people from the neighborhoods they’re serving.”

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Campaign staff member Tamara Power-Drutis said that under Echohawk’s proposed reforms, “trained, competent” mental health care workers, not police, would respond to emergency calls involving mental health crises. “A lot of those calls don’t need to be handled by someone with a gun,” Power-Drutis said.

“Also in Seattle, homeless sweeps have been a big issue. So, the same thing there – instead of sending police in to work with people experiencing homelessness, send in people who really love and care for people who are experiencing homelessness and have them work hand-in-hand with them.”

Power-Drutis said traffic mitigation – not enforcement – is also a function that could be contracted out, freeing officers to do policing. “At stop signs and parking lots when cars are moving in and out, there’s a lot of overtime right now that’s spent on SPD staffing, helping drivers not cause congestion,” she said. “That could be an economic opportunity and driver for small business to rise up and meet that need.”

Power-Drutis said she’s a longtime friend of Echohawk’s and was drawn to her campaign because of the “transformative work” she’s done in the community, particularly with the Chief Seattle Club.

“I think what is neat about Colleen is she brings people into be a part of it,” Power-Drutis said. “There’s a place for all of us to be a part of caring for each other and this place, and I’m inspired by that.”

Former City Council member Sally Bagshaw echoed those sentiments.

"Colleen Echohawk will be a mayor who positively transforms Seattle,” Bagshaw said in Echohawk’s campaign announcement. “She combines her deep love for people with her executive expertise. She is gifted in bringing the best out in people. I have seen her in action: she is passionate about service to this city and encourages those who have been left out while listening to those who have been all-in.

“She is a respected leader who will help us solve critical issues including homelessness while rebuilding safe and healthy neighborhoods. She will align broad interests to recreate our post-COVID-19 economy while creating new sustainable jobs. Colleen has the vision to reimagine the city we want: a city that is inclusive, vibrant, and respectful of all.”

Echohawk has been recognized by numerous organizations, among them: 21 Leaders to Watch in 2021,by Seattle Magazine; the King County Martin Luther King Jr. Medal of Distinguished Service (2020); Seattle’s Most Influential People, by Seattle Magazine (November 2019); Seattle Met Magazine’s 50 Most Influential Women (2018);the Adeline Garcia Community Service Award (2018);Antioch University’s Public Service Award (2018); and Crosscut Media’s Courage Award for Public Service (2016).

Richard Arlin Walker (Mexican/Yaqui) is a journalist living in Anacortes, Washington, 80 miles northwest of Seattle.