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The Quiet Man : All eyes are on Larry EchoHawk, who has supporters from Hollywood to the White House. But the shy Native American only has eyes for Idaho--and that's why he wants to be its governor.

November 02, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOISE, Idaho — Many came here stalking a stereotype.

The BBC. Paris match. An Italian magazine and Japanese television. They led an insistent trickle of overseas media searching for a man they presumed to be a noble savage tamed by the white eyes--and now poised to become the nation's first Native American governor.

"I'm probably a disappointment to some people," says Larry EchoHawk. The name is proud Pawnee and as romantic as great-grandfather Echo Hawk, the U.S. cavalry scout. "Maybe they do want to see me in an Indian shirt, or beads, with a headdress on. But as you can see, I wear a business suit."

Also button-down shirts, power ties and sensible shoes. He speaks carefully like the attorney he is, and campaigns with a huge dignity that has brought this Democrat from county prosecutor and state legislator to Idaho attorney general in just over a decade.

And with the unsolicited support of Hollywood money, the expensive advice of Washington spin doctors, and the endorsement of jogging partner Bill Clinton--albeit a dubious asset in conservative, gun totin' Idaho--most polls give EchoHawk a double-digit leg-up for a place in American history.

"I want to be known as a leader, a person in public office who stands for things they believe in, and values they were raised with," he insists. "I have some strong feelings and positions . . . most evolved from how I was raised.

"Undoubtedly, my Native American roots influence how I look at things."

EchoHawk is at the wheel of a Nissan Maxima rental, cutting across the Idaho Panhandle. If this is 8 a.m. it must be Moscow. It's also the first of 10 legs of another 14-hour day; to shake hands in Orofino, Kamiah, Nezperce and innocent villages where school signs warn about cigarettes, not guns, on campus. Where the hottest race in town is Kaufman for Coroner and surely Twin Peaks is around the next bend.

EchoHawk drives to unwind. He likes it best on night roads, says an aide, talking out the day and chewing sunflower seeds.

When talking about his life, it is an unbeatable story. He is the fifth of six children born to Ernest EchoHawk, an itinerant oil field surveyor who chased his trade from Wyoming to New Mexico.

At 7, Larry EchoHawk was holding Dad's surveying poles. It wasn't an unhappy, hungry, dirt-floor childhood, he remembers. But there were three brothers to a bed.

Blessedly, it also was a time of civil stirrings in America. The Kennedys were speaking inspirations. Martin Luther King was on the march. The Office of Economic Opportunity had funds for minority educations--so six children went to college and OEO bought law degrees for the brothers EchoHawk.

A Mormon by family conversion--part of his father's recovery from alcohol--Larry EchoHawk won a football scholarship to Brigham Young University, as defensive back. Law studies at the University of Utah. Then counsel for the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, state representative, county prosecutor and attorney general in 1990.

It has left him a grateful, unblinking idealist.

"I think visionary about what we can become," he says. Black. Latino. Asian. Native American or white. "There is a lot of goodness and opportunity in America and I have realized it with my life.

"When I spoke at the Democratic Convention . . . I made a statement that says a lot about who I am. 'I have seen what was, but I see very clearly what we all can become.' "

Like parents, like son: Larry EchoHawk, 46, and wife Terry also have six children. Of course they are answering campaign phones, distributing stickers and wearing buttons for Dad.

They also are learning his philosophy of giving.

"It is Indian tradition," EchoHawk explains. "Something called 'giveaway.' In times of celebration, in times of mourning, you show strength and character by giving what you have to other people.

"To me, that's the great thing about public office . . . the chance to give something you have to bless the lives of others. That's the way I was raised as an Indian."

Indian? What of Native American? Or American Indian? EchoHawk says he isn't concerned by the political subscription of terms. He interchanges them.

And he's heard all the slurs, is neither bothered nor amused by labels, and even laughs off one cruel pejorative: Radical Redskin.

"When I ran for attorney general, there was a presentation packet that my opponent handed out to some business leaders," he recalls. "There was a page . . . about the campaign in terms of 'beads and blankets and braids' and my contributions as 'wampum.' "

Even in this gubernatorial race, EchoHawk knows opposing pollsters are trying to weight voter opinions with "questions about the Native American identity of Larry EchoHawk and was this a factor."

"But I believe that people . . . in Idaho are very much aware of my ethnic background," he says. "What I don't know, is how much of a factor that is."

*

The Native American factor of Larry EchoHawk can be split many ways with a variety of consequences.

In Idaho, frankly, nobody gives a damn.

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