A natural coolhunter, Bunky Echo-Hawk paints on the roughly serrated line between pop and American Indian cultures.
“It’s a lot of fun finding subjects for paintings,” says the Pawnee and Yakama artist. “When it comes to the intersection of pop culture and native culture, a lot of times I find myself looking through a native lens at mainstream culture. I try to find ways to relate the two. When natives aren’t present in mainstream culture, I find a way to insert their influence into mainstream concepts.”
Injecting native symbols and elements into popular, highly recognized cultural universes like Star Wars, Echo-Hawk makes no bones about his artist’s duty: make statements. Get people thinking and talking. He’d be deeply uncomfortable if his paintings only appeared in museums or galleries. He uses social media to spin his work out to a larger, more diverse audience than the ones present for conventional art scenes. He navigates the digital world with ease, making new homes for symbols and references that date back thousands of years.
Echo-Hawk’s coolhunting adventures began in high school. Pulled into a rebellious skate scene as a youth, he began learning how to move through mainstream culture without being a fixture in it.
“Growing up in Colorado was hard. Here in Oklahoma, we have a diverse culture. There’s a lot of natives and a lot of non-natives that are familiar with native cultures,” he says. “In a lot of ways, race isn’t a big deal here. In Colorado, we were the only native family around. For some reason, I fell into the skate scene. It has a lot of parallels with native culture. It helped me through challenging times in high school.”
Years later, Echo-Hawk, who gave up skating after a back injury, still keeps up with the scene, even incorporating skateboard decks into his artistic arsenal. His custom boards were recently featured in a Smithsonian exhibit, Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America.
Echo-Hawk has already seen more commercial success than most artists see in a lifetime. He designs skateboards and gear for Michigan skate company, Native Escapes. Nike turned to him for design help with its Air Native N7 line, shoes built to fit the specific foot shape and width needs of indigenous people.
Echo-Hawk set his sights on an art career as a kid and never wavered. His father, human rights attorney Walter Echo-Hawk, is also a skilled illustrator. The elder Echo-Hawk often sketched for his son while telling Pawnee stories. It didn’t hurt that Echo-Hawk’s mother was also a painter. Riffing off of his parents, he began drawing and painting at a young age, turning his talents to homemade adventures of pop culture icons. Television’s The Dukes of Hazzard, he confesses, was a favorite.
“I basically use pop culture icons as vehicles to convey my messages. Everybody in the world knows who Yoda is and who Darth Vader is. People know what they’re about. By associating Darth Vader and, say, [Gen. George] Custer – combining them – people get it. It’s humorous, and people understand what I’m saying,” he says.