A member of the Pawnee tribe, EchoHawk is a founder and leader of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). He is a lawyer who has dedicated his life to protecting Indian land and sovereignty. In 1970 EchoHawk was the first Native American to graduate from the University of New Mexico School of Law. He decided to use his knowledge to benefit Indians who did not understand Native American laws. After law school, EchoHawk became a part of California Indian Legal Services. EchoHawk joined other lawyers and tribal members to form the NARF, which was similar to the NAACP (both were based around civil rights activism). EchoHawk centered NARF's focus around preserving tribes, protecting tribal resources, protecting human rights, ensuring government responsibility, expanding Indian law and educating people about Indian issues. Through NARF, EchoHawk has had a range of civil rights successes, from government recognition of tribal sovereignty to the drafting of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
EchoHawk is the older brother of Idaho politician Larry EchoHawk, and Larry has spoken of how John persuaded him to follow in John's footsteps in going to law school. He served on President Barack Obama's first transition team on Indian affairs. He has been discussed as a possible nominee in the Obama administration to the federal bench.