When Crystal Echo Hawk was in the third grade, she recalls watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon that featured a Native American stereotype.
"He has a bright red, huge nose, not wearing a shirt and he's wearing a banner that said, 'Vanishing American,'" she recalls. "It made me feel really bad. It really stuck with me."
Echo Hawk, now 49, grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and attended a mostly white school where she was teased about her name and asked to perform the rain dance. As she endured and navigated through society's perceptions of her heritage, she grew more determined to change them.
In 2016, Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, raised $3.3 million and co-founded Reclaiming Native Truth, a public opinion research project to dispel misconceptions and counter discrimination.
Two years later, she launched IllumiNative, a network of activists and tribal leaders challenging negative narratives. The nonprofit helped to successfully lobby for the renaming of the NFL's Washington franchise, and hopes other teams with racial mascots will do the same.
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"The fight against the Washington football team to change their name didn't just start last year. It's been 30 years in the making," she tells PEOPLE for this week's Women Changing the World issue. "We stand on the shoulders of so many Native American elders and activists. We still have a long way to go to get the American public to really understand the harm that these things cause."
Echo Hawk, whose great-great-grandfather was a warrior and given his name after a battle, comes from the warrior tradition. She continues to fight for visibility and positive representation across all platforms — from Hollywood to politics.
"That's the ultimate disruption: When people can finally see us as leaders, and not just for our own people," she says. "We can make a difference for all Americans."
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