Hillel Echo-Hawk: ‘If You Take Over A People’s Food, You Take Over The People’

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Hillel Echo-Hawk specializes in Indigenous-based, pre-colonization foods, offered through her private catering company Birch Basket. A Seattle resident and member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, Echo-Hawk is also a founding member of the I-Collective, a group of food-minded Indigenous people from across the country that aims to bring traditional foods and knowledge into local communities. In years past, the collective has organized “Takesgiving” pop-up events in New York that serve as an important history lesson, while also providing visibility and a sense of humanity to Native people, and showcasing the diversity of Native cultures and food heritages. At the top of Echo-Hawk’s current list of priorities is to establish a group connecting Indigenous farmers in the Pacific Northwest, which is especially important since the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of food systems.

On Growing Up In Rural Alaska

I grew up in a large family in Alaska, in a very small town that’s super religious. But food was always at the center, and it was a huge part of my family culture. We were the house that always had people over, and had people living with us, so it was always ingrained in me to feed others.

My mom is white and my dad is Pawnee. Next door to us was an Athabaskan family, who we spent a lot of time with and who adopted my mom into their culture. I grew up hunting and subsistence-style living, partly because it’s a hundred miles away from a grocery store. The little grocery store we had in town wasn’t very good. I grew up eating lots of canned foods, and there was a lot of preparing for winter.

“My culture has been doing this for thousands of years before French people … French-style cooking isn’t the only way. But you can’t tell a white male chef that … it doesn’t go over very well.”

– Hillel Echo-Hawk

I had some medical issues, and still do. Since I was 14, I’ve been officially diagnosed with epilepsy. [The diagnosis] took a long time because we were so religious … [I was told] Jesus was going to heal me. I tried a lot of unconventional therapies that didn’t work. It wasn’t until I was 25 when I officially moved to Seattle and went to culinary school.

On Misleading Thanksgiving Traditions

While growing up, we would have Thanksgiving at my church. But I always felt out of place, and never totally comfortable. It was always so weird to see these little white boys and girls excited to dress up as pilgrims and Indians; I just didn’t understand it. We were in a super conservative town where the stereotypical narrative is, “The pilgrims sat on one side of the table and Indians sat on the other, and they had this great meal … and that’s why we have Thanksgiving.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned the truth about everything, and that the current standard Thanksgiving dinner was not what was served at that original massacre meal.

On Rejecting The French System Of Cooking

After graduating from culinary school and working in a few restaurants, I realized the restaurant industry was just not ready for me, for my point of view on food—the Indigenous, traditional point of view. I don’t like the French system of cooking that’s so prevalent. Everyone is like, “This is just the way it is, and this is what the entire system was built on.” But my culture has been doing this for thousands of years before French people, and we were doing just fine. There are many other cultures in the world; French-style cooking isn’t the only way. But you can’t tell a white male chef that … it doesn’t go over very well.

One of the ways I challenge this — that has gotten me into quite a bit of trouble in kitchens I’ve worked in — is that I don’t use the term chef. In Native culture, there’s no term for chef; I’m just a cook. Chef is a French term [that translates to “chief”]. Whenever I worked in the kitchen where somebody was like, “Yes, chef,” I’m always like “OK, Dave.” I’m not going to call you “chef” — I don’t like that; it makes me very uncomfortable. I’ll call you “boss,” though.

[French chefs] don’t take into consideration other food cultures, and for me that’s just unacceptable. There wouldn’t be French cuisine without vanilla or chocolate, which come from South America. There wouldn’t be Italian cuisine if it wasn’t for tomatoes, which they got from South America. That’s what makes those cuisines. It’s so mind-boggling and frustrating to me when people think French and Italian cuisines are the pinnacle. If you took away the food that has come out of what is now known as the Americas, what’s left of those cuisines?

On Indigenous Cooking And The Importance Of Sustainability

You can’t have Indigenous cooking without being sustainable. They go hand in hand. Indigenous cooking is very broad because there are currently 573 federally recognized tribes, and several thousands more unrecognized tribes. We all have our own unique way of cooking, our own seeds and ways of using and preparing things.

“It’s so mind-boggling and frustrating to me when people think French and Italian cuisines are the pinnacle. If you took away the food that has come out of what is now known as the Americas, what’s left of those cuisines?”

Some of the food I work with the most — and that people have eaten all of their lives — are corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, turkey, rabbit, fish and game meats like elk, buffalo, moose and deer. Also, vegetation that is now considered weeds, but that we have been eating and using as medicine for thousands of years. Some Michelin star restaurants are putting it on their plates — and those plates get an extra $20 because they’re using what’s now considered weeds. I try my hardest to use only Native purveyors, and Native, Black-owned and immigrant farms. That’s been a huge goal of mine, and it’s not as hard as people think. I’m tired of giving my money to white farms and white purveyors.

Fifteen years ago, my auntie Deb Echo-Hawk started the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project to rebuild our seeds. Because when [Pawnee people] were moved from Kansas and Nebraska in 1875, we lost so many of our seeds that just wouldn’t grow in Oklahoma, where the reservation is now. The Pawnee people were not hunter-gatherers, we were an agricultural people. We had very sophisticated and intricate agriculture systems, and only went out hunting twice a year. There’re so many tribes, so many incredible cultures — and food cultures — that have been lost because of disease and war, and because crops have been burned that were government-sanctioned. And that’s one of the reasons why sustainability is so important.

I look at the Indigenous population and I see our health disparities, and how things have evolved in our health. And for me, it all goes back to our food. You can look throughout history — any time an intruding body comes in, one of the first three things they do is take over the food and water somehow. They’ll destroy water systems and food banks, and burn crops. They’ll make it illegal for you to eat your traditional foods, then give you their foods that your body doesn’t know how to process. If you take over a people’s food, you take over the people. When we were put onto reservations, we were not allowed to grow, eat, hunt, forage or do ceremonies with our foods. We were given government commodity foods, which is basically like rations. And that’s how fry bread came about — it’s a starvation food. There’s data from the very first reservation to now about the rise in diabetes and heart disease. When you’re punished for using your traditional foods, that brings such trauma ― it’s still being felt to this day. If I can do anything around traditional foods to help break that trauma and heal, then I’m going to do it.