Echo-Hawk, 33, has long been expressing himself through painting and drawing, but it was last August, during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, that his work began to attract an even larger nationwide Native following.
The Pawnee and Yakama tribal member was invited to attend an Aug. 27 event celebrating Native contributions to the Democratic Party. There, he was asked to create a unique live painting, with dozens of attendees watching over him as he worked.
Attendees of the event said he seemed to have a vision in mind before he began, but some insisted he was free-flowing, as he is sometimes known to do. He said at the time that he “hadn’t decided what it was going to be,” when he started painting.
As Echo-Hawk’s paints slid onto the canvas, distinguishing shapes began to appear: A prominent chin; a strong nose; a tell-tale ear of an important politico in profile. Echo-Hawk’s vision contained all the distinctive features of then-President-elect Barack Obama.
But he wasn’t done yet. Echo-Hawk added a headdress to the portrait with feathers hanging down to the gentleman’s suit coat and tie. A red line of paint was also added to Obama’s lower and upper eye regions. Then, the artist imprinted the plain suit with a bright red image of his own hand, and signed his artist’s signature in hot pink.
In the end, Echo-Hawk’s portrayal somehow made Obama seem like both a revolutionary warrior and a peaceful listener.
Just as artist Shepard Fairey was able to express the feelings of the change movement by creating a distinctive representation of Obama in a much celebrated poster with the block words “Hope” imprinted at the bottom, Echo-Hawk was sending a message: Obama should be the clear choice for Natives. He was a man who would understand. He was a man who would listen.
Soon, the painting began getting attention throughout Indian country; YouTube videos were made about its creation; and it received plenty of tribal attention in the Denver region.
By the time Obama was sworn in as president Jan. 20, the painting had come to Washington too, along with Echo-Hawk. Organizers of the American Indian Inaugural Pow Wow allowed the work of art to be displayed at the hotel where the festivities were held.
By then Echo-Hawk had been able to produce hundreds of prints of the canvas painting, ranging from large sizes to postcards.
“They are just beautiful,” said Sally Frazier, an Alaska Native, to a person at the booth where Echo-Hawk’s replicas were being sold. “They say so much to me.” She bought a packet of five postcards, which she planned to send to family members.
When Indian Country Today featured a picture of Echo-Hawk’s “Barack Black Eagle: He Who Helps People Throughout the Land,” on www.indian
country.com after Obama’s inaugural address, people commented expressing their support for his work. A sample: “Your painting looks beautiful. You are really an awesome artist.”
Echo-Hawk said he was inspired to create the piece after hearing the words of Obama during his campaign visit to Crow Agency, Montana in May 2008 where he was adopted as an honorary member of the Crow Nation by the Black Eagle family.
To commemorate the piece, the Tuell-Guest collection, in conjunction with Echo-Hawk, has released authorized reprints. Information on how to get commemorative posters and T-shirts featuring the design are available on Echo-Hawk’s Web site.
While the events surrounding the painting have made for an amazing year, Echo-Hawk’s artistic story did not start with his popular tribute to Obama. He’s been a full-time artist for several years. He labels himself a “proACTIVE ARTist.”
“I get inspired and motivated to do my art from injustice in Indian country,” Echo-Hawk said in a recent interview posted on YouTube. “There are a great number of atrocities that our people faced throughout the past 500 years. My fuel for my art comes from how those atrocities affect us today as Americans, as Native Americans.”
Echo-Hawk believes art is a pathway to re-educating the public and correcting stereotypes about Native Americans.
“Through art, that can be achieved,” Echo-Hawk said. “It can set sparks off in people’s minds, in people’s hearts, and inspire them to want to look at these issues and do something about it.”
He believes, too, that artwork should be affordable, so that it is accessible to everyone. Sometimes he sells massive paintings that would normally cost thousands of dollars for a few hundred dollars. He said he most enjoys painting for Native people.
In addition to being a freelance graphic designer and photographer, Echo-Hawk is a full-time father. He is also the director of NVision, a nonprofit group that focuses on developing Native youth leadership and traditional and contemporary expressions of art, culture, education and media from a Native perspective. It is based in Longmont, Colo. and is an affiliate of the Seventh Generation Fund, one of the oldest Native foundations in the country.
Echo-Hawk said the organization promotes the development of a new generation of Native leaders, artists, educators and activists within a context of respect and understanding for traditional Native life ways, sovereignty and community.