Colleen Echohawk joins Snoqualmie Tribe’s Eighth Generation as CEO

The former mayoral candidate hopes to make the Indigenous art and lifestyle business into a global brand.

Person in front of body of water. She is wearing black clothing, has long dark hair and wears a greenish scarf

Colleen Echohawk has taken a new position as the CEO of Eighth Generation, a Seattle-based Indigenous art and design brand owned by the Snoqualmie Tribe. (Courtesy of Colleen Echohawk)

Colleen Echohawk, a former Seattle mayoral candidate and longtime Chief Seattle Club executive director, has landed a new job: CEO of Seattle design and lifestyle company Eighth Generation. The Snoqualmie Tribe-owned company has become somewhat of a national phenomenon since its 2008 founding by Louie Gong, who charted a new path for Native artists by making sure the company’s designs were made by “inspired Natives,” rather than “Native-inspired.”

Gong, who is Nooksack and Chinese, has been the face of the business for more than a decade. He bootstrapped Eighth Generation in 2008 — first custom-painting Vans and Converse sneakers with Coast Salish designs, then growing his idea into a Pike Place Market shop and national brand. He sold the company to the Snoqualmie Tribe in 2019 but stayed on as CEO, directing Eighth Generation's recent move into manufacturing its own woolen blankets in Seattle. 

This past fall, Gong — who will continue working with the company as one of its artists — asked Echohawk to take over. Echohawk remembers sitting in a car with her husband after the phone call, stunned. “I have been excited about Eighth Generation for so long because it's so innovative, it's so important for Indian Country,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It helps share this huge message of how important art is, how important it is to stop the cultural appropriation that's been happening for hundreds of years in this country.” 

Echohawk, who has long worked on combating homelessness and is a member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and the Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake, starts officially on Feb. 1. But she is already dreaming big: “We really hope that Eighth Generation becomes as known [as] Target, or Nordstrom or Costco.” 

While Echohawk is gearing up for the new job, she spoke with Crosscut about cultural appropriation and her plans for going global. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

You’ve known Louie Gong and the company for a while. How did you first cross paths with Eighth Generation? 

When I got to Chief Seattle Club, we realized right away that we needed a new logo. One of our employees said: “Hey, I know this guy, Louie Gong.” ... We came up with this really beautiful logo together and that was it. I was just like: “I really believe in this guy and in the work that he's doing." ... It’s a very full-circle moment. 

Did you ever shop at Eighth Generation? 

In the Native community, we give blankets for special occasions. And so I've bought many blankets from Eighth Generation and passed them on to friends and family.… The thing that is exciting to me is to be able to buy Native jewelry and art and products that are authentic. When I was growing up, you didn't have the ability to go and buy a really cool mug that was a Native design.

We have Pendletons in our home. But as we know, when I was a baby … I don't think that they were designed by Native people. it was just appropriated Native artwork that they got from somewhere. I've been so excited about giving Native kids the opportunity to go to a store where they know the tribe, the artists, and see themselves represented in an authentic, real way. I think that not only is it important for my kids, for my nieces and nephews, but also for non-Native people as well. 

a store lit up from within above it a giant artwork in blue and red

The Eighth Generation flagship store in Pike Place Market on Nov. 21, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The Eighth Generation flagship store in Pike Place Market on Nov. 21, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

How is running a company different from running for office? 

Really different. But in some ways, there [are] some themes. I ran for office because I was sick and tired and exhausted of seeing Black, Indigenous and people of color much more likely to be homeless on our streets. I felt we have to do something more. We have to find ways to break down these systems of oppression. Louie started Eighth Generation with similar frustrations of non-Native artists making millions and millions of dollars on Native designs that should rightly go back to those artists and to the tribes in those communities. We know that the racial wealth gap is one of the places where we are failing as a city and a country. We have an opportunity with Eighth Generation to build wealth within the Native community. 

Do you think that Eighth Generation, or any single company, can actually make meaningful dents in those huge issues? 

Yes. I'm well known to be an aggressive optimist. And you have to be when you're working in the field of homelessness. When I left Chief Seattle Club, we [had secured] 400 units of housing — and I did that kind of impossible thing. Because I knew that we had to. I feel the same way right now about Eighth Generation. We could shift that paradigm. 

I have huge plans. I hope to grow and grow and grow this company. And as we do that, as we create these pathways for prosperity for all employees, that will have an impact on our communities. It's one of those things where it seems like a drop in the bucket. But I'm incredibly hopeful that we will have many, many drops in that bucket that overflow into the community in a way that impacts us all.

What are some of those big plans? 

To understand the customer, and then also to educate the customer. We have people who ping us every day on social media and say, “Can a non-Native person wear this? Can a non-Native person buy this?” We absolutely want non-Native people to buy these, wear them and be proud of them and talk about them and tell the stories. The other part for me is to really get out there and do the networking we need to do to become a brand that is incredibly well known. 

Louie Gong said that you are “the leadership Eighth Generation needs to go global.” How will you do that? 

It's putting one foot in front of the other. It's also about establishing and using the network that I already have grown here in Seattle. The other thing is that we also need to really be building out our inventory and our systems. We have people calling us, constantly asking us to do all kinds of different projects. And we have to build out that capacity. 

How do you expand your Seattle network to a global one? 

The way that I'm picturing it: There are Indigenous artists all over the globe that have been harmed and hurt by colonization. Their art has been appropriated in ways that have harmed the community. I am excited to think about what those global opportunities are to lift up those Indigenous artists from all over the world. 

Will Coast Salish art still be a focus within the new global Eighth Generation? 

Absolutely. Coast Salish art is so incredibly beautiful. Having a strong Coast Salish presence will always be a priority of mine. 

Recently, two local artists were charged with faking Native American heritage to sell artwork at downtown Seattle galleries. Does Eighth Generation have a way of authenticating artists and how will you approach this as you’re going global? 

The number one thing is that, at least here in the U.S., we know our community. This is a Native-owned company [with] a Native CEO and founder. We are also asking people for enrollment in their tribe so that we can make sure that we're doing all of our due diligence. One of the things that we'll be working on in the next year is creating the right kind of policies to make sure that we are truly having authenticity in our art and with our artists, and that they are truly [Indigenous] people from around the globe.

When Eighth Generation started in 2008, there weren’t many businesses like it. Now, you see more Native-owned lifestyle and design companies trying to enter the market. Can Eighth Generation keep its edge, and how? 

Number one, the market is so unsaturated with Native art and design. And because Eighth Generation was one of the first … we know we have an edge, we have an infrastructure, we have staffing, we have a marketing team. We need to innovate, absolutely, we need to keep growing and thinking about what kind of new products we're going to do and how we're going to sell them. But I think Eighth Generation has an opportunity here that is truly unprecedented. And I look forward to helping us get there. 

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