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Unsettled Territory:The Fight for Fort Lawton

Resilience Reclaims a Land

Walk into Seattle’s Discovery Park, and you’ll find fields of tall grass rustled by the sea’s breeze and bluffs with panoramic views of Puget Sound. A casual visitor would have no idea that the quiet site was once the site of a nationally publicized action by Native American activists and their supporters. The history of Fort Lawton, as the now-inactive military post was called, is a fascinating and oft-overlooked chapter in Seattle’s history.  

"Every generation finds their own voice. We were just planting a tree, knowing that we would never bask in the shade of that tree but our children and our grandchildren might. That's what this is about."
--Randy Lewis, Colville Elder

Historical Context

Fort Lawton opened in 1900 on lands that had been inhabited by Indigenous peoples such as the Duwamish and other Coast Salish peoples for centuries. A relatively quiet post, it gained importance during WWII, at one point hosting more than 20,000 soldiers.  

By 1969, however, the federal government had decided it was surplus land, meaning that it was no longer needed by the military. Officials in the City of Seattle had long discussed acquiring the land to convert it into a public park, but Native American activists also saw its potential. They envisioned building a hub for the city’s rapidly growing Indigenous population, which had grown five times larger in two decades. 

There were a number of reasons more Native Americans were moving into the city. While local tribes had been disrupted and displaced since the arrival of white settlers, life on tribal lands had only grown harder as development continued. For instance, Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam, opened in 1942, devastated areas where Indigenous people lived, and hindered salmon fishing. In addition, their traditional way of life was threatened by increasingly strict fishing regulations. Many lived in poverty. 

Beginning in the 1950s, the federal government’s policies effectively dissolved tribes nationwide and pushed tribal members to move to cities. This freed up tribal lands to sell to private developers or use for other purposes. For the Indigenous people who moved into urban centers, the transition to urban centers was difficult. Once they’d moved, many found it hard to find steady work, with few resources to help them get established. In Seattle, volunteers with the American Indian Women’s Service League (AIWSL) attempted to fill this gap by providing essential services to the Native American community, in addition to advocating for policy reform. Yet when the group attempted to obtain municipal funding to develop a center, they were unable to do so. 

The Fight for Fort Lawton

Native American activist Bernie Whitebear was among those who believed in converting Fort Lawton into a multipurpose and education center. He and other activists made the case to Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and the Seattle City Council, but their proposal was initially rejected. Though some in the Native American community wanted to keep trying to negotiate, Whitebear and others were skeptical that change would ever come without taking more drastic measures. Inspired by Native American activists in California who had recently occupied Alcatraz Island, they began discussing other ideas. They formed The United Indians of All Tribes Federation (UIATF) in early 1970 and planned the action over the next few months. 

On the morning of March 8, 1970, more than one hundred Indigenous protestors and their supporters arrived at the fort from multiple entrances, joined by many non-Native supporters. Once on site, Whitebear read a proclamation that invoked the “Doctrine of Discovery” that had been used by European settlers to justify seizing the lands of Indigenous Peoples across the globe; the original doctrine specified that when white explorers “discovered” lands previously unknown to Europeans, the land legally belonged to them. The activists’ declaration repurposed that language: 

“We the native Americans reclaim the land known as Ft. Lawton in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.” 

The claim was also based on U.S. Indian treaties that promised that surplus military lands would be reverted to their original owners. Later, Whitebear delivered a copy of this statement to city offices, including their intent to establish a center for Native American studies, a university, a center for ecology, a school, and a restaurant.  

“Any single one of our groups is too small to have a voice. But we found out that when they combined their voices, they could get a lot done. So the Asian community, the Black community, the Hispanic community and the native community came together to support each other on so many fronts.”
--Randy Lewis, Coville Elder

“Don’t give up on your dreams. Always walk in the way of your people. Walk in the way of your people. Remember the sacrifices they made so that you could have a life. And they sacrificed a lot.”
— Randy Lewis, Coville Elder

Resistance to the Claim

Whitebear and other activists spent several weeks occupying the area outside Fort Lawton called “Resurrection City.” Newspapers shared the developing story of their protests, inspiring Seattle residents to send letters both for and against the activists’ demands. 

Eventually, Whitebear and a group of UIATF members flew to Washington, D.C. to make their case to a congressional committee. In 1970, they successfully petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put an administrative freeze on the site, temporarily preventing the city from acquiring it. This forced the city into negotiations that lasted for months. In November 1971, the opposing groups at long last reached an agreement that provided the UIATF with approximately 17 acres of land on a 99-year, renewable lease from the city. Though this was less land than they’d advocated for, it would allow them to build a large cultural center. The agreement was signed and executed on March 16, 1972. 

Once they’d won the land, the hard work of designing, planning, and building could commence. The project would be funded by public and private sources, with numerous volunteers contributing to the effort. It would take several years to complete, but in 1977, the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center opened its doors for the first time.  

Daybreak Star Today

Nearly half a century later, Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center remains the headquarters of the UIATF, providing the Native American community with a wide range of social and community services. The center also welcomes people of all backgrounds to visit, where they can view a permanent collection of Native art and rotating exhibits in its Sacred Circle Gallery, learn about Native culture, and shop for art, home goods, and other items at the Sacred Circle Gift Shop. Its annual events are open to the public, including recurring art markets and a celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October. The United Indians’ Seafair Indian Village Powwow, a three-day summer event showcasing dancing, music, cooking, jewelry-making and more, attracts more than 15,000 people from near and far. 

Elsewhere in Seattle, there are many places to honor and learn about local Native culture, including museums, cultural centers and art galleries downtown. Beyond city limits there is even more to see, such as the Suquamish Museum located in Suquamish territory, just a short ferry ride from Seattle. 

Unsettled Territory celebrates the often untold, yet evocative, moments that have helped to shape Seattle’s cultural heritage.
We invite you to come and explore.

 

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