Echo Hawk reflects on a life of service

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

OREM, Utah, August 1, 2013

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L arry Echo Hawk remembers his childhood realization that, as a Native, he was not expected to achieve a higher education.

He speaks of the "painful history" of the Pawnee people and members of his family who were forced to give up their homeland for white settlers, sent to strict boarding schools and beaten for using their Native language. He remembers sitting in public school and hearing the teacher describe Indians as "savage, bloodthirsty, heathen renegades," and he recalls concluding that a college education was beyond his reach.

Echo Hawk, who turns 65 on Friday, now is among the most respected American Indian leaders in the country. A successful attorney, politician and law professor, Echo Hawk has turned historical pain into promise.

"I came from very humble beginnings," he said during a July interview in his home in Orem. "My mother only had an eighth-grade education and my father had to work hard."

Yet all six children graduated from college and three became attorneys. Echo Hawk worked as legal counsel for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and served as an Idaho state representative and county attorney before being elected as Idaho Attorney General in 1990, earning him the title of the first American Indian elected to a statewide office.

In 1994, he ran for the office of Idaho governor, aiming to be the nation's first Native governor. After his defeat, he took a faculty position at Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School, where he taught federal Indian law, criminal law and criminal procedure for 14 years.

Fifty years after he decided his future was limited by his skin color, Echo Hawk was named assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs. He cut that assignment short when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2012 called on him to serve as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Now, one year later, Echo Hawk is moving to the Philippines to serve in the church's area presidency for three to five years. The assignment is the latest chapter in a career that has balanced Echo Hawk's identities as a Mormon, a politician and an American Indian.

Humble beginnings

Echo Hawk's first memory is of Farmington, N.M. His family moved there just before Echo Hawk started first grade. His father worked as a surveyor for the oil and gas industry, and Echo Hawk began working with him at age 9. He remembers his father picking up Navajo workers from a tent city near the San Juan River.

"We had a close connection with the Navajo people," he said. "Most of the work we did was on Navajo lands and we went down dirt roads and visited most of the communities. We fell in love with the people and the land."

Early ties to the Navajo Nation proved beneficial to Echo Hawk during his legal career. In 1985, the Nation asked him to serve as a special prosecutor in a case involving accusations against the chief judge. The case did not go to court.

Echo Hawk joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at age 14, a decision that changed the course of his life. After graduating from Farmington High in 1966, Echo Hawk attended the church-owned Brigham Young University on a football scholarship.

While there, his academic aspirations were to simply be a "good football player," he said.

That changed when his brother John - who later founded the Native American Rights Fund - counseled him to go to law school.

"He told me it would give me the power to change," Echo Hawk said of his brother. "He told me I could right wrongs done to Native people. He provided a vision for what people can do to change the landscape."

Echo Hawk graduated with a law degree from the University of Utah in 1973. Accompanied by his wife, Terry, Echo Hawk embarked on a career that incorporated his academic, traditional and spiritual values - standards that clashed at times.

Attorney General

Echo Hawk remembers two "tough days" as attorney general of Idaho.

As a candidate for the position, Echo Hawk had three strikes against him, he said. He was Mormon, Native and Democrat, running for an office held by Republicans for the last 20 years.

"When I was elected, I told tribal leaders that I hoped there never came a situation where there was a conflict," he said. "When I took the oath of office, I couldn't be a tribal attorney anymore."

A conflict, however, occurred when citizens passed an amendment allowing the lottery in the state, Echo Hawk said. The loosely worded amendment opened the door for Indian gaming, and Echo Hawk was forced to present new legislation that clashed with tribal interests.

"The only opponents to the new amendment were tribal leaders," he said. "I was never opposite the tribes in my life, but that day I was."

Echo Hawk called the incident a "dark day."

"I was heartbroken," he said. "But if I had to make the decision 1,000 times, I would still do the same thing. I just didn't like being on the other side."

Echo Hawk's other tough day came in 1994 when he served as chief legal officer over Idaho's first execution in 36 years. Keith Wells was sentenced to death for beating two people to death with a baseball bat.

Echo Hawk was in the death chamber and Wells already was strapped to a gurney 10 minutes before midnight on Jan. 6, when a clerk from the U.S. Supreme Court called.

"He said they were waking up the nine justices to determine whether to grant a stay of execution," Echo Hawk said of the clerk. "He didn't have a court order, so I had a decision to make. We could have gone ahead with the execution."

Complicating the matter were two groups of people congregated outside the prison. One group was holding a candlelight vigil for the accused man and the other group was throwing a party, Echo Hawk said. Other prisoners in the maximum security unit were yelling profanities.

The execution was scheduled for one minute after midnight.

Echo Hawk decided to give the Supreme Court a chance. He postponed the execution for 40 minutes - until the justices returned with their decision to decline the stay. Wells was executed by lethal injection.

"That was a tough decision," Echo Hawk said. "When you take the oath of office, you keep the laws. When you run for office, you have to accept that you will do things that are very difficult."

Law professor

Echo Hawk has taught federal Indian law 23 times.

During the bulk of his 14 years at Brigham Young University's law school, Echo Hawk was the only Native professor, according to Scott Cameron, associate dean for external relations. In that role, Echo Hawk became a resource for students and colleagues.

"Laws have impacted Native Americans differently than Anglos, Hispanics and blacks," Cameron said. "A Native professor becomes very helpful in bringing dialogue and understanding to the school."

Echo Hawk transferred his legal and political experience to the academic setting, said Cameron, who believes it is important for students to understand federal Indian law.

"For anyone who lives anywhere near a reservation, Indian law is important because each tribe has its own laws that are different from federal laws," he said. "Without this class, it's difficult for students to understand the issues."

When Echo Hawk left the law school in 2009 to serve in Washington, D.C., he took a leave of absence, Cameron said. The school is holding his place.

"Should he decide to come back, his position is still here," Cameron said.

Interior Department

Echo Hawk hesitated when he received a call from the Obama administration in January 2009.

"I had the perfect life," he said. "I wasn't looking to change."

The federal government used "very powerful words" and convinced Echo Hawk to take a leave of absence from his teaching job.

"They told me my country was calling me to service," he said. "I loved being a BYU professor, but when I got the call, I came to the realization that I needed to do what I could to serve."

Even after Congress confirmed his appointment as assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, Echo Hawk worried about his role in the federal government. Specifically, he said he didn't want to be the "face of the federal government for tribes."

"I've taught federal Indian law," he said. "I know the dark chapters of American history. I used to sue the federal government. I used to criticize them for not honoring treaties. We've had a pretty bad record and I didn't want to be the most recent chapter in failure."

During his first public speech after being confirmed, Echo Hawk told a group of Natives near Niagara Falls that he would "use the power of the office to say yes as many times as (he) could to tribal leaders."

During the next three years, Echo Hawk helped implement the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, oversaw formation of the Tribal Leadership Conference, worked with water rights and constructed or renovated 28 schools on various reservations. He was in Rough Rock, Ariz., for both the groundbreaking and dedication of a new school there, a project he called one of his best memories.

When Echo Hawk announced his resignation in April 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Echo Hawk "opened a new chapter in our nation-to-nation relationships ... accelerated the restoration of tribal homelands, improved safety in tribal communities, resolved century-old water disputes, invested in education and reached many more milestones that are helping Indian nations pursue the future of their choosing."

His most noteworthy accomplishment likely was enhancing public safety, said Michalyn Steele, a member of the Seneca Nation and an attorney who worked with Echo Hawk for the three years he was in Washington. Echo Hawk increased law enforcement resources for tribes and tackled difficult issues like youth suicide, Steele said.

Above all else, however, Echo Hawk was approachable and humble and he never lost sight of his Native roots, Steele said.

"He was always a servant, always doing what he could to make life better for Indian people," she said. "He has lived a life of integrity and he brings a real sensitivity to the way policy affects the daily lives of people."

Echo Hawk called the federal position the most difficult job he ever did. He resigned just seven months before his term ended when his church called him to serve as a member of its third-highest governing body.

Church callings

Members of the First Quorum of the Seventy are appointed to serve the church until they reach age 70, at which time they are given emeritus status. When Echo Hawk accepted the call, which was announced in April 2012, he agreed to serve for the rest of his life, he said.

"I was planning to finish my term in the Interior Department then go back to teaching," he said. "When I got the call from church headquarters, that's when life changed."

Echo Hawk spent his first year in the full-time church position traveling the Southwest, where he met with church members in various tribes and even received a standing ovation from the Navajo Nation Council.

"That brought tears to my eyes," he said. "I was very blessed in being raised in Farmington and learning to love the Navajo."

Echo Hawk and his wife left for the Philippines in July. Although he believes his church calling is his first priority, he said he will miss the work he did for American Indians.

"There are a lot of things I care deeply about," he said, "but my spiritual values are number one."

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