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50 years ago, Native American activists in Seattle tried to take over Fort Lawton

Protesters gather outside main gate of Ft. Lawton on March 15, 1970 after 78 were arrested.
The Associated Press
Protesters gather outside main gate of Fort Lawton on March 15, 1970, after 78 were arrested.

Fifty years ago, on March 8, 1970, Native American activists attempted a siege of Fort Lawton in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. Like the Indian activists who were occupying Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay at the time, the Seattle contingent was staking claim to land the federal government was going to surplus.

Fort Lawton, which opened in 1900, was a United States Army post. In the early 1970s, the federal government announced 534 acres of the land would be surplused. The City of Seattle wanted the prime real estate, with its beach, cliffs and wooded setting for a park. But, a group of Indian activists in Seattle had another idea.

Randy Lewis, who had grown up on the Colville Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington, was a college student at the time and active in the Native American rights movement. Lewis said when the late Bernie Whitebear, who was the leader, asked him to be part of an occupation of Fort Lawton, he was all in when Whitebear told him it would be "a little dangerous."

He says the plan was to march in and stake a claim to the more than 500 acres that encompassed much of Fort Lawton. Around 8 a.m. on Sunday, March 8, Lewis said about 100 men, women and children arrived in a car caravan. Then got out at the Fort entrance.

"We entered the fort to secure a claim and all heck broke loose," he said. "We didn’t realize there was 3700 MP’s still housed there."

He said everyone started running every which way. The Military Police, or MPs, chased them down, hitting them with nightsticks.

"You know, there were people who had their shoulders broken," he said.

The MPs dispersed tear gas. Some of the young boys hid under barracks. Eventually, Lewis said, the protesters were rounded up. He says people were detained, then released and expelled from the fort.

But later, under cover of darkness, he and three other activists, dressed all in black, sneaked back in to retrieve film canisters photographers and a filmmaker had buried in the sand, to prevent the MPs from confiscating and destroying them. They found the hidden film, be it was a close call when the MPs spotted them.

"We were discovered in our last 200 feet from the fence," Lewis said. "They brought the lights up on us and it was like a prison escape. Literally, I don't know how we did it, but we ran. We hit that fence and were over it. I have no idea how we did that. It was like an Olympic vault."

Over the next several weeks, there would be other attempts to take over the fort. A few weeks after the first try, about 90 activists scaled the Magnolia cliffs in the dark, coming up from the beach. When they reached the top, they hunkered down as jeep patrols came by every half hour.

The group set up tepees and started a fire, preparing to camp, but the military police arrived in riot gear this time. Those who didn't escape back down the cliffs gave up peacefully. After that, the activists set up on the sidewalk just outside the fort with picket signs. Protesters kept a 24-hour vigil. But, within a month, they agreed to leave. Leader Bernie Whitebear announced they were moving to Phase Two, the political arena. They had been building community support. And when celebrity Jane Fonda joined the protest, media attention surged.

Whitebear and others proceeded to lobby federal and city officials, arguing that by rights some of the land should be theirs. They met with Washington's U.S. Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1970. They established the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, an entity that would be able to receive surplus government land.

They didn't get all that they wanted, but their militant action had some success. They were able to secure 40 acres of the land. That's where Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center sits, overlooking Puget Sound. It's surrounded by Discovery Park, the surplus land that went to the City of Seattle.

When the remembrance of what happened takes place this Sunday, March 8, 2020, at Daybreak Star, Randy Lewis will be there. He said it's important that the young people know the stories of what happened and that people fought for what is there now. And, he said, it's important to put it all in context.

"This wasn't just born out of the civil rights movement, it's part of the civil rights movement," he said. "Our war had been going on since the invasion of the pioneers. This was part of our fight for hunting rights, our fight for fishing rights, our fight for human rights."

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.