It’s not often — and not often enough — when indigenous peoples invade the lands of their erstwhile invaders to reclaim what was originally theirs. In the early 1970s, emboldened by the Black and Chicano liberation movements then transpiring across the United States, Native American tribes nationwide began demanding rights and lands long denied them by the U.S. federal government. One of the first noteworthy events of this movement occurred in Seattle on the date in focus here.
On that fateful Sunday morning, more than 100 members and supporters of the United Indian People’s Council (UIPC) took direct action to reclaim a portion of Fort Lawton, a 1,100-acre U.S. military base located in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. The fort had recently been decommissioned and declared surplus land by the U.S. Army, and was therefore up for grabs, with Seattle’s city government expressing strong interest in turning the land into a public city park. Earlier that year, UIPC had approached Henry M. Jackson, then Washington state’s junior U.S. senator, about the possibility of using the land for a cultural center and social services provider for Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples. While Jackson politely referred UIPC to the U.S. Department of the Interior, both Jackson and Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman made it clear to the press that they intended to deny that possibility.
Undaunted, UIPC decided upon nonviolent direct action as a means to acquire the land at Fort Lawton. They took their inspiration from another group of Native American activists with similar aims who had recently staged a successful occupation of Alcatraz Island, the former federal maximum-security prison near San Francisco. UIPC’s claim to legal ownership of the land at Fort Lawton was based on rights granted under certain U.S.-Indian treaties signed in 1865 that promised reversion of surplus military lands to their original owners. Participants in the action included Bob Satiacum, a Puyallup tribal leader and native treaty fishing rights advocate; Bernie Whitebear of the Colville Confederated Tribe; and Leonard Peltier, the future American Indian Movement leader and political prisoner, at the time a Seattle resident.
The activists invaded the fort from all sides, some scaling the western bluff overlooking Puget Sound, some climbing over fences, some attempting to enter through two heavily guarded gates using diversionary tactics. When some of the activists were first discovered by a roving military police patrol after setting up a tepee and a small campsite inside the fort, Satiacum attempted to read a statement explaining UIPC’s action. The statement read, in part:
“We, the native Americans, reclaim the land known as Fort Lawton in the name of all American Indians by the right of discovery.
“We feel that this land of Fort Lawton is more suitable to pursue an Indian way of life, as determined by our own standards. By this we mean ‘this place does not resemble most Indian reservations.’ It has potential for modern facilities, adequate sanitation facilities, health care facilities, fresh running water, educational facilities, fisheries research facilities, and transportation facilities.”
The remainder of the proclamation was drowned out by the shouts of a Military Police sergeant, leading a 40-man MP platoon that had been dispatched from nearby Fort Lewis onto the scene, ordering his men to “move in and take them away.” The MPs then began carting any activists they could catch into the Fort Lawton stockade. Eighty-five persons were detained, questioned, and released that evening with letters of expulsion.
The symbolic invasion was thus repelled, and the activists’ expulsion from the fort appeared at the time to be a defeat for UIPC. However, UIPC continued to confront the federal and Seattle city governments concerning their claim to the land at Fort Lawton, immediately calling for demonstrations the next morning at both the fort (where many of the activists involved in the invasion remained camped outside the front gates) and the U.S. Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle. Allegations of brutality by the MPs inside the stockade on the first day of the invasion were quickly reported and would remain a point of contention among protesters as the story unfolded.
The protesters remained outside Fort Lawton for three weeks. The encampment and vigil they kept there became known as “Resurrection City,” and local community members kept them supplied with food, clothing, and moral support. Another attempt to invade the fort occurred on March 15. While 77 persons were arrested that day, the protesters agreed not to resist arrest, and this incident was thus peaceful. On April 2, the day UIPC agreed to break down Resurrection City and shift their strategy from occupation to negotiation, one final, unsuccessful attempt to occupy the fort was made, more as a symbolic gesture than the first two attempts.
During the following year, negotiations between UIPC and the Seattle city government slowly unfolded, often at a frustrating pace. Actual formal negotiations did not begin until June 1971. UIPC’s persistence finally led to a formal victory in November 1971, when it was agreed that UIPC would lease twenty acres of the Fort Lawton property for a 99-year period, with options for successive 99-year leases without renegotiation. The agreement was approved, executed, and incorporated on March 29, 1972.
The resulting local institution, Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, officially opened on May 13, 1977, under the auspices and operation of UIPC (known today as United Indians of All Tribes). The center’s name, as well as the architectural design of the building, was inspired by the legend of the vision of Black Elk, a Dakota Sioux medicine man. Daybreak Star was originally the name of an herb which, when dropped upon the earth in Black Elk’s vision, exploded into the tree of life, representing the uniting of all races. The building’s design was a groundbreaking attempt to integrate Native American symbolism into contemporary architecture.
Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center was directed by Bernie Whitebear until his death on July 16, 2000. A lavish ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Fort Lawton occupation was held at the center on March 8, 2010.
Sources: “Jackson Checks Lawton Scene,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 1, 1970, p. A6; “Army Repels Indians At Forts Lawton, Lewis,” The Bremerton Sun, March 9, 1970, p. 7; Richard Simmons, “Indians Invade Ft. Lawton,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 9, 1970, p. A1; “Army Disrupts Indian Claim on Ft. Lawton,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 9, 1970, p. B; Jerry Bergman and Paul Henderson, “Indians ‘Invade’ Army Posts,” The Seattle Times, March 9, 1970, p. A11; Don Hannula and Jerry Bergsman, “Indians Drum Up Support for Fort Claim,” The Seattle Times, March 10, 1970, p. A1; “Indians Put Pickets Outside Ft. Lawton In Effort For Site,” The Bremerton Sun, March 10, 1970, p. 24; Richard Simmons, “MP’s Arrest 77 Indians at Lawton,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 16, 1970, p. 1; “Geronimo’s Revenge,” Helix, March 20, 1970, p. 4; “Proclamation,” Helix, March 20, 1970, p. 5; Brenda Dunn, “The Indian Arts Center that nobody thought would happen,” Seattle Weekly, May 18, 1977, p. 7; Lossom Allen, “By Right of Discovery: United Indians of All Tribes Retakes Fort Lawton, 1970,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/FtLawton_takeover.htm).