There they grow again! IllumiNative announces new leadership and media company expansion

Crystal Echo Hawk and Michael Johnson will co-lead, and Angel Charley named Executive Director. With a new media production company, Charley calls IllumiNative ‘Unapologetically ambitious’

IllumiNative, the renowned Native woman-led organization dedicated to advancing justice, equity, and self-determination for Native peoples worldwide, has just announced a new executive team which includes Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) as Founder and CEO, Michael Johnson (Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota) as President, and Angel Charley (Pueblo of Laguna and Navajo Nation) as the organization’s inaugural Executive Director. 

Jennifer Van der Heide has also joined the team to lead a newly established department as Vice President of Advocacy and Engagement. 

In addition to this new executive team, IllumiNative, Inc., has announced IllumiNative Media, LLC., a media production company that, according to the press announcement, will “reflect a pivotal step towards increased representation and authentic storytelling in front of and behind the camera.”

IllumiNative will be hosting the first-ever Native Visibility and Power Convening, which will be available to livestream on June 11 – 13 – registration Information is available here.

Echo Hawk, Johnson and Charley offered comments about the growth and future of IllumiNative in the company’s press announcement.

“When I started this organization in 2018, I had no idea where it would take me, but the growth and impact we’ve achieved in the last five years has surpassed my wildest expectations,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, Founder and CEO of IllumiNative. 

Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) is the founder and executive director of IllumiNative. (Courtesy image)
Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) is the founder and executive director of IllumiNative. (Courtesy image)

“The creation of IllumiNative Media is a huge step for our organization and the future of Native representation and will allow us to invest in and support Native creatives both in front of and behind the screen to raise cultural awareness and promote authentic Native storytelling. As we enter this next transformative phase, I am honored to work alongside our exceptional leadership team and board to continue building power for Native peoples and shape a future where our narratives are heard, respected, and celebrated. I could not be more proud of the organization’s growth, and I am so excited for this next stage of expansion – we have some really exciting projects and initiatives ahead of us.”

“I am honored to join Crystal and the talented IllumiNative team as President as we embark on this journey of community-directed radical movement building and the acknowledgment and celebration of self-determination to increase the visibility of Native peoples,” said Michael Johnson, President of IllumiNative. 

“Research is IllumiNative’s DNA – it’s what the organization was founded on in 2018, and it continues to be the driving force behind our ability to create change and respond to the evolving needs of our communities, which is why we’ll be releasing brand new research this year to guide our vision for the future of our organization and the fight to build power for Native peoples.”

“I have deeply admired IllumiNative as an organization that stands at the forefront of advancing Native voices and narratives, and I am excited to step into the role of Executive Director to continue stewarding our mission,” said Angel Charley, Executive Director of IllumiNative. 

“I’m honored to be working alongside Crystal, Michael, and the rest of the team in this distributed co-leadership structure that will expand our potential to show up as leaders in our communities. I look forward to working together with our dedicated team and partners to elevate Native voices and catalyze positive change on a national scale.”

Echo Hawk, Johnson and Charley also offered direct responses to questions asked by Native Viewpoint editor Vincent Schilling.

Crystal Echo Hawk

Vincent Schilling: You have done so much in the past few years. How does it look today versus how it looked for you on day one? 

Crystal Echo Hawk: IllumiNative has seen incredible growth since its creation in 2018. Our organization was founded based on research that identified invisibility as one of the greatest threats facing Native peoples. Since then, we’ve led the design and implementation of several research initiatives that aim to amplify Native representation and visibility.

We’ve made significant strides – calling for increased representation of Native storytelling and talent in television and film, campaigning against the use of Native mascots, names, and imagery, and uplifting Native leadership and Tribal sovereignty within politics and government.

Now, with the launch of IllumiNative Inc. and IllumiNative Media, we’re excited to elevate our organization’s impact as the leading racial and social justice organization for Native peoples. 

Vincent Schilling: What did day one look like, and what did you expect?

Crystal Echo Hawk: IllumiNative was founded in response to the findings of the Reclaiming Native Truth project, which made clear that we needed an organization dedicated to supporting narrative change to help shift the way the American public thinks about and treats Native peoples. In 2018, we were able to quickly mobilize and get started on our work to increase Native visibility and representation. The growth and impact we’ve achieved in the last six years has completely surpassed any expectations I had when IllumiNative was founded.

Vincent Schilling: What have been some of the most rewarding efforts of IllumiNative?

Crystal Echo Hawk: There is so much about this work, and it has been rewarding over the past six years. From the championing of Native-led storytelling through partnerships with major film studios and productions to garnering a groundswell of support for the appointment of Secretary Deb Haaland, to successfully campaigning against the use of Native sports mascots, IllumiNative has been a driving force for positive change within the Native community. 

One project that we worked on last year that I’m especially proud is American Genocide, a six-episode documentary-style podcast that examined the atrocities and human rights violations committed by the U.S. federal government and Catholic Church within the federal Indian boarding school system and followed the ongoing investigation into these crimes. 

Storytelling has always been an integral part of the Native community, and we’re so honored to accelerate that momentum and continually amplify Native voices, issues and stories through our work at IllumiNative.

Michael Johnson

Vincent Schilling: What are your visions for IllumiNative for the future?

Michael Johnson: As President of IllumiNative Inc., I look forward to continuing and expanding on the amazing success of our visionary CEO and activating our mission to create visibility and representation for Native peoples across all aspects of our society. I am also excited to focus on the future sustainability of the organization and our programming to further our goal of building power for Native peoples to advance justice, equity, and self-determination.

Vincent Schilling: Much of Native culture is matriarchal; how well has IllumiNative demonstrated such a concept?

Michael Johnson:  Crystal founded IllumiNative in 2018, and since its creation, we’ve prided ourselves on being a women-led organization. We definitely look to honor the tradition and lineage of our Matriarchal societies and strive to be an example for a future where men are active participants in rematriating community, organizations and society. We’ve also strived to prioritize leadership among Native women within IllumiNative as a whole – most recently with the addition of Angel Charley as our new Executive Director. Our team consists of strong women leaders who spearhead our initiatives and shape our vision. By fostering an empowering environment, we aim to honor and uplift the matriarchal traditions inherent in many Native communities, ensuring that women’s voices are central to our mission. 

Angel Charley

Vincent Schilling: What are your visions for IllumiNative for the future?

Angel Charley: IllumiNative was founded to build power for Native peoples by increasing visibility and advocacy for our community, and I feel so honored and grateful to have been trusted with stewarding this important work forward. One thing we are really focused on this year is getting into the research refresh analysis and sharing it with community, Native leaders, and allies to see where Indian Country has made progress and where there are new opportunities to build solidarity and power for Native peoples.

Vincent Schilling: What should the world know about IllumiNative?

Angel Charley: IllumiNative is unapologetically ambitious. We’re grounded in our research and guided by our values. Native voices and stories are too often sidelined and discarded, and IllumiNative is actively combating this. We have a lot of work to do, and I’m extremely excited to be stewarding IllumiNative as we continue to be a premier racial and social justice organization for Native people.

Other notables at IllumiNative, as listed in the announcement

IllumiNative is also proud to announce the first Board of Directors to play a crucial role in guiding IllumiNative’s strategic direction and ensuring the organization’s continued success. Holly Cook Macarro (Red Lake Band of Ojibwe), Principal at The Angle, serves as Chair. Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee), Playwright and Legal Counsel to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, serves as Vice Chair. Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, serves as Treasurer, and Wayne L. Ducheneaux II (Cheyenne River Sioux), Chief Advancement Officer at Intertribal Agriculture Council, serves as Secretary. Members at Large on the Board of Directors include Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache), Executive Producer, Cloud Woman Media, Kathy Baird (Sicangu Lakota/Oneida Nation of Wisconsin), Chief Communications Officer of The Washington Post, Tilane Jones, President of ARRAY, and  Anna McMurphy, Chief People Officer of MNTN. The Board of Directors will oversee IllumiNative’s growth and expansion in partnership with the founder and CEO, Crystal Echo Hawk and President Michael Johnson.

About IllumiNative: 

IllumiNative is a Native woman-led racial and social justice organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of—and challenging the narrative about—Native peoples. Our mission is to build power for Native peoples by amplifying contemporary Native voices, stories, and issues to advance justice, equity, and self-determination. We envision a future where the self-determination and sovereignty of Native peoples is respected and supported, where our children see themselves reflected in the world around them, and where Native peoples author and drive our own narrative. 

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