Interview with an Indigenous Chef: Hillel Echo-Hawk

Hillel headshot
Hillel Echo-Hawk

Name: Hillel Echo-Hawk

Location: Seattle, WA

Business name: Birch Basket 

Tribe: Pawnee and Athabaskan

What led to your passion for Indigenous foods?

I grew up in rural Alaska in the upper Athabaskan area in the town of Delta Junction. Our neighbors were an Athabaskan family who lived in Mentasta Lake Village. My family would travel there on the weekends, and it was about 3 hours away. I would be fed traditional Athabaskan foods, and I was taught how to hunt and forage, how to fish and how to fillet fish. 

The Mentasta village matriarch started fighting the state of Alaska in 1984, one year before I was born, for hunting and subsistence rights. That fight went on for 25 years and I grew up watching that, and being part of it. The matriarch of the village would hold traditional camps, which were illegal at the time, on her traditional land, and I just remember fish and game harassing us every time…like arresting people for practicing and learning traditional ways. And so from an early age, I just saw this and was around these people who had this fight in them. I was around very strong women, and I’ve always loved to cook. And so it just stuck with me.

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives?

It’s so important. Our food tells our story. Whenever you are at a Native gathering, whether it’s a powwow or ceremony, or even just eating at a Native home, food is always at the center of it. Whether that’s commodity foods or traditional foods, or something bought at the store, it is always the center of the gathering. And that’s because our food is so integral to who we are.

For example, in Athabaskan culture, the raven created the world so they don’t eat raven, because it’s a sacred animal. Athabaskans don’t eat bears, because there are certain stories that have to do with bears being their brother. In my culture, the Pawnees, we have our corn mother. In almost every Indigenous culture, there is some sort of food that is a mother to who we are and how we were created. Wherein, for colonial, white, Anglo Saxon, Christian culture…that’s just not the same.

What other ways (besides your business) are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods?

I work with the I-Collective. The I-Collective is a group of chefs, cooks, artists, ethnobotanists, foragers, and seed keepers. We all have the same goal of bringing back traditional foods to our communities and educating the public about traditional foods and the history of Indigenous people through that food.  

I’m very active with I-Collective and we do all sorts of stuff, whether it’s in our own communities or we’re asked to go somewhere else into another community to speak or cook somewhere.Through the I-Collective I’ve been able to be connected with so many other Indigenous cooks and chefs and ethnobotanists, and food activists in general. We all have relatively the same goals. It’s just been so beautiful because this group is so much larger than I thought it was and it’s been so amazing to see the growth of what’s happened in the past few years.

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting Indigenous food systems?

Education is huge. Knowledge of the elders is so key. Talk to elders and learn from them so the information can be passed on, especially the elders who were in boarding schools. If we could get them [the elders] to talk to youth it would be amazing for them to have an open discussion. We need to find a way to connect them to pass down information, and also let people know that before commodity foods, before boarding schools, before reservations, this is how we lived. And we thrived. We thrived.

Is there anything else you want to share?

I want to add that traditional gardens in our own communities are very important and will be a huge thing for us. It is so important for each Tribe to have their own seed banks, because to have that as a focus is not just saying “yes, I’m taking a stand for my Tribe,” but it also shows that we have sovereignty over our food.