Birch Basket features indigenous-based, pre-colonization foods

Hillel Echo-Hawk wants to answer your questions, no matter what they might be — and she’s gotten some dumbfounding ones. She’s the force behind Birch Basket, a Seattle private-chef and catering company focused on indigenous-based, pre-colonization foods.

A chef and an educator, Echo-Hawk possesses the gift of patience. She speaks of the ignorance she encounters with a remarkable gentleness. “Even here in Seattle, people are like, ‘Native people are still alive?’” she says quietly. “Oh my God, yes.” She’s had people ask her, “So, you get a check every month, right?” Some tribes’ members do get per diem payments, she’ll explain, but not all, and not hers. She’s Pawnee, and, she says, “My tribe, we’re poor — real poor.” She’s been asked to confirm, multiple times, that she “just automatically gets into college for free?” “No. No,” she says, calmly. Even when impassioned, Echo-Hawk remains remarkably soft-spoken. (In the restaurant kitchens she’s worked in, “It’s a problem,” she notes. “They’re always like, ‘Hillel, we can’t hear you!’”)

Her patience, understandably, reached its end when someone once said, “Oh, wow; so you’re sober now?!” “I almost punched that person in the face,” Echo-Hawk says, still softly.

“What is Native food?” is a more tenable inquiry. Still, it’s more complicated than most people think, the question itself a reductive one. “Well, there are 562 federally recognized tribes,” Echo-Hawk notes. “So you would have to ask one of those tribes what Native food is for them.” And even for her — one person — it’s complex. “I grew up in Alaska, and I’m Pawnee, which is traditionally from the Kansas/Nebraska area. And so my Native food goes two places.”

She grew up 100 miles inland of Fairbanks, in tiny Delta Junction (“You blink and you miss it”), in a huge family. “We were always cooking,” Echo-Hawk says. She didn’t feel much connection to any culture until neighbors from Mentasta Lake village got her family spending weekends there, where matriarch Katie John was fighting for Native hunting and fishing rights. In the mid-1980s, Echo-Hawk relates, the state government was requiring licenses for Native people, whereas, “Before, it was like, you can hunt and fish whenevs.

“Katie John was like, ‘Nooooo — you guys have taken too much from us. You’ve taken my children; you’ve taken my land. You’re not going to take this away from me.”’ As a part of her effort, John held subsistence camps, “where she would teach the old ways.”

“I would kind of say that’s how I learned how to be Indian,” Echo-Hawk says. She remembers a camp where they caught hundreds of pounds of salmon from the Copper River. The smokehouses were built, and the fish was filleted. Then the Department of Fish and Game showed up, first in a helicopter and then on land. Children weren’t required to have fishing licenses. Echo-Hawk was 8. The cry went up: “Give the fish to the kids!” Her father told her to say some was hers and, incredulous to be told to lie, she did.

“That’s when I started to understand, no matter what, I will always be different,” Echo-Hawk says.

Echo-Hawk’s family was adopted into the tribe in a potlatch with “a huge ceremony — it was the official, Athabascan way.” Katie John took the cause of Native subsistence all the way. She “fought the state of Alaska for 25 years and won in U.S. Supreme Court to get those rights,” Echo-Hawk says, “and basically gave the middle finger to the state of Alaska.”

Also raised Christian, Echo-Hawk became a missionary, traveling to New Zealand, then realizing she was engaging in a form of the colonization to which her people had been subjected. She felt “disgusting.” She quit. Eventually, she landed in Seattle, where her brother-in-law encouraged her to go to culinary school, as she’d wanted to do since she was 14. She calls enrolling in the program at Seattle Central College “the best decision of my life.” Since graduating four years ago, she’s cooked at Seattle restaurants including Damn the Weather, Local 360 and the vaunted Altura.

Her company, Birch Basket, is still very new. “It’s just me, really,” she says. Indigenous-based, pre-colonization foods — “People are like, ‘What is that?’ ” she says. “It’s no eggs, it’s no milk, it’s no beef, it’s no chicken, it’s no wheat.” People ask her, “What do you make?!” “You’d be surprised,” she says. It’s healthy, it’s sustainable; any ingredient indigenous to North America is fair game. Start her talking about it, and she’ll tell you of the trade routes that brought corn from the south, how the oldest stories she knows of the Three Sisters — the nutritionally brilliant, environmentally beautiful teaming of corn with beans and squash — go back 2,000 years.

She’ll speak, softly but seriously, of the present-day debate about fry bread, how she won’t condemn its proponents — “I can’t tell you what’s good for your soul” — but that she won’t ever make it. “It came out of being forced,” she says, “because we were not allowed to go hunt and not allowed to go fish, and we were forced onto a piece of land that we didn’t want to go onto.” A pause — a long one. “And it came out of starvation,” she says. “That’s what fry bread is. That’s what it represents to me. So why do I want to feed that to my people.” It is not a question.

This spring, Echo-Hawk is traveling all over the country as part of the I-Collective, a group of Native chefs, activists, writers and more from across North America and Mexico focused on education about, and restoration of, pre-colonial indigenous foodways. In Hastings, Nebraska, she’ll make lunch for 500 people involved with the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project, reviving traditional varieties of corn that were nearly extinct, helping them flourish again.

Elsewhere, the I-Collective is bringing the ideas and tastes of Native food to conferences and events. In the face of health issues caused by processed foods — issues Echo-Hawk points out were unheard of 100 years ago — they’ll continue “working with tribal governments and working with the local communities, working with elders who speak the language and know what to look for, know how to forage, have eaten their traditional foods.” Echo-Hawk points out that reservations are often food deserts; to return the knowledge of things like roots and wild turnips, “things that many people were using for thousands and thousands and thousands of years,” is crucial. As is getting kids involved. “And they get it,” she says. “It connects with them.”

In Seattle, you can connect with Birch Basket to eat and to learn — Echo-Hawk will cater functions, cook for dinner parties or teach private cooking classes for you. “Ask me questions,” she says, softly and sincerely. “I want to answer your questions.” If you’re curious about her last name, she’ll explain: “The soldiers couldn’t say the traditional name — the Pawnee name — so they translated it to ‘The hawk whose good deeds echo softly behind him.’ And so they just shortened it to Echo-Hawk.”

Hillel Echo-Hawk’s Salmon with Dandelion and Honey Purée

Serves 4

“You can pick the dandelion leaves anywhere,” says Echo-Hawk, though she recommends you steer clear of areas right by roadways, where there’s lots of debris and exhaust. If your yard or a park doesn’t provide, farmers markets might have them (or, she notes, “You can substitute arugula”). The vivid green purée tastes mostly bitter, slightly sweet on its own, and perfect with the rich fish. For the salmon, she says to use what’s in season, fresh or frozen (thawed, though), not farmed. “Get to know your fishmonger — they’ll educate you and hook you up.”

4 4-ounce salmon fillets, skin on

4 cups dandelion leaves

1/4 cup pecans, toasted

3 1/2 tablespoons honey

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup water, as needed


For the purée

Wash the dandelion leaves thoroughly, then dry in a salad spinner or on towels. Blanch the dandelion leaves for a minute and a half, then drain; final quantity should be about 1 cup. Place all your ingredients except the olive oil and water in a blender. Blend until fully incorporated, then add the olive oil slowly, blending to emulsify. It should be the consistency of tomato soup; if it’s too thick, add water. Add salt to taste.

For the salmon

Use wild salmon, fresh in season or frozen (thawed out). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Salt both sides of the fillets generously. Heat oil in an ovenproof skillet on medium high until it shimmers, then carefully lay fillets in, skin-side-down. Use a spatula to push down on the fillets to get a good crispiness on every part of the skin. After about 3 minutes, when you feel it mostly stop popping, flip salmon over and put the pan in the oven for another 3 minutes for medium-rare.

To serve

Place a couple of tablespoons of purée on the plate, then salmon, skin-side-up, on the purée.

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