Sarah EchoHawk got her start in nonprofit work more than 15 years ago when she took a part-time job answering phones at the American Indian College Fund.
Now, with a proven track record of managing nonprofits and dedicating her life to Native people, EchoHawk is poised to lead the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. AISES is the only professional society established by and for Natives that provides scholarships, networking and support for those in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, with an emphasis on Native culture.
EchoHawk, Pawnee, takes over May 1 as CEO of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based society.
“I’m excited,” she said. “I think the opportunities are limitless.”
AISES has 3,000 members from more than 200 tribal nations, ranging in age from high school students to professionals preparing to retire. EchoHawk wants to see more Natives seek careers in the STEM fields and use their indigenous cultures to address the changing world—issues like environmental health and food, water and economic resources.
“The people coming out of STEM, the scientists, those are the people who will be working on these problems,” she said. “Those are the people that will be poised to have an impact and help come up with the solutions to address those huge problems. We need people who have the indigenous knowledge and perspective and who can bring it into the conversations about science.”
Although she doesn’t have a background in the STEM fields, EchoHawk has dedicated her life to serving American Indians and Alaska Natives, said Mary Jo Ondrechen, president of AISES’ board of directors and a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University. EchoHawk was selected from a pool of hundreds of applicants for the position, which opened in August when former CEO Pamala Silas stepped down after serving for eight years.
As CEO, EchoHawk will oversee the society’s operations, outreach, fundraising and vision.
“Sarah has an incredible portfolio of talent and experience, and she has the track record to prove that she has dedicated her life to advocacy for the American Indian people,” Ondrechen said. “Sarah stood out as the person with the best kind of experience and total devotion to the American Indian people.”
Ondrechen, Mohawk, has been affiliated with AISES since 1994 and has served on the board since 2007.
EchoHawk, who joined a student chapter of AISES in college, has a bachelor’s degree in political science and Native American studies and a master’s degree in nonprofit management. She is the daughter of John EchoHawk, a founder and leader of the Native American Rights Fund, and the niece of Larry EchoHawk, former assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs.
A childhood steeped in Native activism and service prompted EchoHawk to pursue a career in nonprofit organizations. She comes to AISES after working for six years at First Nations Development Institute. She also did private consulting for nonprofit organizations and taught Native American studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“I grew up in a very activist family, an advocacy-rich environment,” she said. “I believe we can educate our people to go back and build Indian country from the inside out and not the outside in. I am passionate about putting Indians back in control.”
EchoHawk views AISES as an extension of the family. The society, founded in 1977, offers a “full circle of support” to individuals in every aspect of their careers—students, mentors, professionals and industry leaders.
AISES’ mission is to increase the representation of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the STEM fields. It does this through extensive networking with corporate, government, academic and tribal leaders. Since its inception, the society has awarded more than $8.7 million in scholarships to nearly 5,000 students.
“Our Indian people have a lot of talent, a lot to give,” Ondrechen said. “It’s important to get that talent into the workforce pool. The right talent, paired with Indian knowledge and values, is a very powerful force for good in the world.”
EchoHawk’s brother has resigned his position on the AISES board. A former scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Chris EchoHawk recused himself from board decisions when his sister applied for the CEO position. He served since 2009.