In a summary of his qualifications, the latest guest in the Sand Creek Massacre NHS Speaker Series is described as an attorney, legal scholar and author with an impressive list of accomplishments, accolades and published works.
Walter Echo-Hawk is most certainly all those things. And he’s also a great deal more.
Echo-Hawk, who is Pawnee, appeared at the Crow Luther to discuss his recently published historical novel, “Sea of Grass”. Described as a “fictionalized account”, the novel tells the story of the Echo-Hawk family over the course of 10 generations, beginning in 1790 with Calico-Cloth-Woman, his great-great-great grandmother, and leading up to current times.
Unlike other books that are placed in the category “historical novel”, “Sea of Grass” accomplishes exactly what the genre is designed to do. The history is unquestionably authentic; Echo-Hawk grew up listening to his uncles, all of whom were gifted storytellers. As a successful attorney, he spent his extensive legal career defending Native American tribes and is already well versed in the impact of historic events on native people. And then, beginning in 2015, he spent three years traveling to different locations, drawing maps and researching collections of archived information, ultimately constructing, among other things, a family tree that contained more than a thousand people. “This is a story about real people,” he said, “who lived in real places where real things happened.”
As a prelude to reading a selection from his novel, Echo-Hawk began where most professional writers begin: setting. However, the first setting he described was not the original setting in his book. It was the Sand Creek Massacre NHS roughly 30 miles to the east, and he addressed it by name only rarely. When he spoke, his voice was gentle and his words, carefully chosen.
“This place is special for its beauty,” he said. “It’s also special for an event that happened here. The land can speak to those who listen. The land tells us stories. Some stories weren’t always pretty. Some were sad, even tragic. The land can be hallowed, even haunted. That is probably true with Sand Creek.”
As he spoke of the massacre in more depth, Echo-Hawk’s ability as a master storyteller emerged. “Historically,” he began, his gentle nature softening the indictment of his words, “what happened there generated shock waves, waves of anger that swept through the tribes of Plains Indians and provoked an all-out war. It cut deep wounds in race relations, and the wounds of war have just started to heal. I came here in 2007 when the site was dedicated. It was good to see the dignitaries come together.” The briefest of moments passed before he continued. “What happened is a national symbol of tragedy that tells us, as a nation in a humble way, that we have taken some missteps along the way…that, as Americans, we have feet of clay like all other nations. The site is also a symbol of healing. At the dedication ceremony, Senator Brownback of Kansas spoke to those who gathered and offered a very moving apology.” Echo-Hawk then stopped. Even though he could not see those sitting in the audience, it felt as if he looked each person in the eye. “It’s only the brave and courageous that make an apology of that nature. Sand Creek is a symbol of our lead American experience, the rise of our country, the struggle to survive and to still be here today.”
At that moment, one could not help but imagine the power with which Walter Echo-Hawk must speak in a courtroom.
Echo-Hawk praised the NPS staff for their commitment to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. “Cheyenne Indians are true American icons,” he said. “Their history, culture, value system, spiritual power, ceremonies, being known for their valor and bravery. They provide us with a rich example of Plains Indians culture. They transcend a single tribe and symbolize the heart and soul of America itself in the eyes of the world. We see it in their powerful photographs of Cheyenne Indians with beautiful beadwork, regal headdresses and war bonnets. They symbolize across the world the image of the American Indian.”
Echo-Hawk stated both history and fate of the Pawnee and Cheyenne were intertwined as they were traditional enemies, engaging in a 50 year war during the 19th century. “The Pawnee had great respect for our Cheyenne adversaries,” he said. “They were brave people. The incidents of warfare and epic encounters are in Pawnee songs, recorded on paintings on buffalo hides and in ledger drawings. Both tribes respect each other.”
And with that, the author segued into a discussion of his own novel and, perhaps, the most powerful and resonating language of the night.
“I’m an attorney,” he said. “But, as a young man, I was engrossed in [the novel] ‘Roots’. It was a powerful story of slavery that instigated a nation. The Pawnee story is as powerful, and “Sea of Grass” is unique. It’s a story of an Indian tribe told by a member of the tribe in a tribal voice about the Pawnee people, our perspective, cosmology, world view—all grounded in our culture. It will offer the reader a rare insight into Colorado history that reflects the Indian legacy in this part of Mother Earth.”
He paused for no more than a second before driving home a point that, by then, felt like a natural conclusion. “As a Native American attorney, I’ve represented tribes since 1973, and we must tell our own stories. We are invisible. We’re left out of history books. Little is known by our neighbors of our stories, our aspirations as native peoples, our current issues. We are ignored by the schools and the public media. Many Americans know Indians only by stereotypes—Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves, Revenant all presented Pawnees as one-dimensional. The information gap puts us in a scary place. Widespread ignorance can lead to human rights abuse, especially when ignorance becomes enmeshed in workings of government. Especially today, we’re highly polarized. Divided. We need to find our own voice. We need to look at our history through our own eyes.”
At that point, Walter Echo-Hawk breathed a deep sigh, made a joke asking if he had put everyone to sleep, opened the novel and, humbly, began to read the story of his family, told in his own voice and his own words as a Pawnee man and writer.