Howie Echo-Hawk confronts Native genocide through comedy

Photo of Howie Echo-Hawk, who performs “genocide comedy” at the Dear White People variety show. (Courtesy Howie Echo-Hawk)

When Howie Echo-Hawk takes the stage and announces that he is going to do some “genocide comedy,” I am so deeply uncomfortable. It’s like glancing in your rearview mirror and seeing a Hummer about to hit your car, knowing there’s no space in front of you to move out of the way.

I brace for impact, afraid to laugh, because genocide is not funny and Seattle woke people etiquette is sending me conflicting messages.

But at the same time, there is a Native person on the stage. I must witness him. But to witness him is to acknowledge all of the ghosts standing beside him.

When he talks about the population of the Pawnee diminishing from 10,000 to 600 and compares white people to the Airbnb guests from hell — the ones that come, don’t pay and never leave — it’s funny and it isn’t funny. And I laugh anyway.

Echo-Hawk performed the fifth run, and final installment of Dear White People, the POC variety show produced by Boom Boom L’Roux.

Echo-Hawk pulls no punches. Every word out of his mouth illuminates an uncomfortable truth.

I laugh from shock. I laugh to keep from crying because as fucked up as black and white relations are, we are at least still here to fight about it. When he cracks another joke about how there are so few Native People that most people look at him and think he’s Mexican, how even racists don’t slur him correctly, I think about what it must feel like to be invisible in your own skin.

What’s it like to feel that way and then say it out loud on a microphone in front of an audience? Some in the audience laugh unabashedly, some squirm in their seats with guilt or grief, and react with a mix of both? I decided to ask him.

“It’s very freeing,” Echo-Hawk told me. “This is the one time I can go up there and say exactly what I think in the way that I want to do it and I don’t even care if I get laughs honestly.”

Howie Echo-Hawk, 27, grew up in a tiny white town in Alaska called Delta Junction. Echo-Hawk’s last name aptly translates in Pawnee to “The Hawk whose deeds echo silently behind him.”

His mother is white, of Irish descent, his father is Pawnee and he grew up in an Athabaskan Native community that adopted them.

“Colonialism says Native identity is determined by blood quantum, but who we are is determined by so much more than that, cultural ties and stuff like that, it’s always about culture, you know race doesn’t exist. We were adopted and taken in so that’s part of who we are.”

Echo-Hawk works a consultant for a communications company and is in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Washington. His hope is to get his doctorate and contribute to the work of language revitalization and restructuring educational systems for Native people.

His foray into comedy began about a year ago at an open mic called QTPOC is Not a Rapper. The show is a “curated” ensemble of queer, trans and POC comics that takes place monthly at Scratch Deli.

“I think that for me I kind of always wanted to do comedy,” he said.

After leaving Alaska and seeing different parts of the world, Echo-Hawk described travel as the catalyst for gaining a new understanding of race and systemic oppression. He also became frustrated at how deeply ignorant the average “American” is about Native culture. He began doing presentations in college to address these issues.

“And I also knew that for Native People and for, I think, all oppressed people in general, a lot of our humor and art comes from some of the worst things that could possibly happen to people.”

And what could be worse than genocide?

“I could just do a 5-minute set on ‘Flashdance’ or the different things like, ‘Hey this thing is different than that thing.’ That’s fine, but that’s not real. We’re just pretending,” said Echo-Hawk. “As a cynic that’s really beautiful to just be able to go up there and tell it how it is, like that whole always as we’re walking through the world there’s the whole double consciousness thing that W.E.B. Du Bois said or like Frantz Fanon called it the colonial mentality, whatever you wanna call it, where we just accept having to have those dual identities and all these entanglements where we’re questioning the way we do things in a certain space versus another space. Almost never do we just get to be us.”

Echo-Hawk attended an earlier run of Dear White People and decided he had to get involved. “It’s watching these people be 100 percent unapologetic and confronting with whatever it is they had to say to whiteness at the time. Funny, sad, beautiful, terrifying, whatever it is. And I just wanted to be a part of that.”

And it was better than he imagined. “It’s not just doing the act that’s great but seeing all these other POC artists doing their act. And then we’re backstage and the conversation ranges from random nonsense to talking about what it’s like to be tokenized. And that’s the thing I’ve heard so many say back there is that all the people involved have been tokenized other places. Now they’re here and we all have a common thread and its really freeing and comfortable and nice and I’m bummed that it’s over. I want that to be always.”

Though the cast of Dear White People was POC, the audience was mixed. Echo-Hawk approached performing his material in front of white audiences with a sense of amused resignation. He confessed that he once laughed after making someone in the audience cry.

“The reactions you get from predominantly white audiences in Seattle is kind of everything you’ve come to expect. You get some people who are like, ‘Oh should I laugh?’ And some people who are laughing and some people who are laughing too hard. Some people who want to come up to me afterwards and say oh that was super funny and some people who come up and say, ‘Oh thank you!’ And I’m like don’t touch me.”

The touching happens most when Echo-Hawk wears his Native jewelry. Like most of his comedy, his joke about being mistaken for Mexican is rooted in his everyday experience. People routinely ask him where he is from or attempt to speak to him in Spanish. When he wears his Native jewelry the response is totally different.

“They want to touch you because they’re like, ‘Oh my God here’s this thing that …looks he’s like walking and going onto a bus, he’s not like a homeless person and he’s not like dead,’ you know all these crazy thoughts they have wrapped up in their head about what it is to be a Native person,” said Echo-Hawk. “So I’ve had people come up and just grab my jewelry and like touch me and it’s been weird.”

He has had to get quick at slapping hands away. “That’s a whole larger thing about Native people, I think Native people and Black people specifically that America feels like it has ownership over us and they don’t even question it. Over our space and our bodies.”

One thing Echo-Hawk enjoys about comedy is the distance. “There is like five to ten feet between me and the audience both physically and metaphorically where I’m just confronting them and I’m not really anticipating anything from them. I’m just there to do my thing and unburden my soul from the day.”

Honesty is his resistance.

“It’s absolutely an act of resistance because they tell us that we shouldn’t talk about it,” Echo-Hawk said. “There’s always going to be oppression unfortunately and freedom does not have an end point, which is something a really great professor of mine likes to say, but it’s about the struggle, right? And part of the struggle is that people will never be able to get any better if we don’t confront it.”