By Brian Lightfoot Brown
In a time where Native women are finally starting to receive some attention, albeit still not enough, for their strength, leadership, heart and dignity, there is another field where a Native woman is standing out in a male-dominated industry. The Tsimshian people of Metlakatla, Alaska have survived through fishing for thousands of years. Today they have more advanced technology and equipment for diving and fishing, and it remains male-dominated. One Tsimshian woman is breaking down this barrier.
Meet Shaunna Echohawk. Shaunna is a commercial diver and fisherwoman of Tsimshian descent through her father and Pawnee lineage through her mother. Shaunna's father and older brothers made a living on diving and fishing and Shaunna was able to tag along as a young girl.
She learned how to work the equipment from the boat but the curiosity and desire to see what her brothers were doing underwater got the best of her. She constantly questioned them about what they saw, what they did, how and why they did it and they answered all of her questions. But she still wanted to see for herself. She persisted in asking her father to let her dive and he conceded. A determined Shaunna took herself to Washington state to get certified and paid for it by herself.
Shaunna's father wasted no time in sending his daughter to the ocean floor. Shaunna’s brothers showed her the job and she had found her calling. She primarily spends late fall throughout the winter months diving and fishing for seacucumbers, having accumulated over 10 years of commercial diving experience. Much of what they brought up from the ocean floor would be sold to various markets in China.
It was through diving that Shaunna caught the attention of the Kelly's from Bering Sea Gold on the Discovery Channel. Kris Kelly, his brother Andy and their father Brad invited Shaunna to join as a diver for them. Echohawk wasn't the first or even the only woman diving, though there weren't many, but she was most certainly the only Indigenous woman on the show. She joined the show for season 12 and proved her toughness to the crew as she dove in waters with temperatures of 20 below, underneath the ice in the Bering Sea.
Following her time on Bering Sea Gold, Shaunna returned back home in Metlakatla to dive and continue to make ends meet amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This mother of 2 grinds her way through the various diving seasons, staying close to her ancestral roots, even finding time to familiarize her 4 year old daughter with all forms of sealife such as octopus, abalone, shrimp, king salmon and more, perhaps sparking the leader of the next generation of Indigenous divers and fisherwomen.
If there’s one thing Shaunna Echohawk is definitely doing, its inspiring future generations of Indigenous women to take their riteful place in areas that have long been considered to be primarily for men only. A hero to the next generation of Indigenous women.
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About the author:
Brian Lightfoot Brown studied U.S. History at the University of Rhode Island, is an enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Tribe and a grand nephew of 1936 U.S. Olympian and 2-time winner of the Boston Marathon, Ellison “Tarzan" Brown