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49th Anniversary of the Takeover of Fort Lawton

On March 8, we celebrate the 49th anniversary of the 1970 Takeover of Fort Lawton. This dramatic protest brought together urban Natives and allies responding to a international call to join in community and work towards justice. The Takeover led to the founding of United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, and the creation of a home for urban Natives at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.

Bernie Whitebear: Founder, Activist, Visionary

Bernie Whitebear (Colville) was inspired to organize the takeover of Fort Lawton in Seattle by his participation in the 1969-70 occupation of Alcatraz. The Fort Lawton Takeover in the spring of 1970 was launched by the declaration by Bob Saticum that “We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Fort Lawton in the name of all American Indians by the right of discovery.”  The occupation lasted for many weeks, as hundreds of Natives and allies assembled and faced violent responses from military police multiple times. For more details on the Takeover, see Lawney Reyes’ biography of Bernie Whitebear, as well as the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project and HistoryLink.

Bernie Whitebear and other activists formed the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation to represent Native interests in the negotiations over the future of Fort Lawton. In November of 1971, an agreement was reached to indefinitely lease to United Indians the 20 acres where Daybreak Star now sits. The founders of United Indians then began the process of building up the organization into the social service provider, community center, and cultural fixture that it has become today. 

Bernie’s goal was to create an organization which would be responsive to urban Natives from across all tribes, bringing together the ideals of the American Indian Movement with the centralization of the desperately-needed social services which Bernie saw as necessary to the well-being of the urban Indian population.

“It’s hard with so many different tribes here,” observes Pam Nason, a Kia Elder who has been with United Indians for nearly 30 years. “We’re 500 tribes strong here in Seattle, and that’s not counting the ones who aren’t in existence anymore because of the federal government.”  Pam remembers that Bernie recognized the centrality of education and art in bringing together the eclectic urban Native community, and sustaining its well-being. 

United Indians Today

United Indians’ services have evolved over the past 49 years as our community’s needs evolve. With new programs we’re developing, such as Fatherhood Support and Developmental Screening and Referral, we continue to listen to our community members and support them in responding to the problems they face.

In addition to providing services, United Indians also preserves and educates people about the history of Native American activism and culture which has imbued United Indians since its founding through events such as our Takeover commemoration.  As Pam notes, “We celebrate the Takeover and the people that made it happen to acknowledge it and pass on that knowledge. [We] have folks here at United Indians who were at the Takeover; it is important to hear their stories and learn directly from them.”

This year, on the anniversary of the Takeover of Fort Lawton, we remember the stories of our Elders, folks who fought beside Bernie Whitebear for the creation of Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, a space where the mission of United Indians could be fulfilled: to be a social service provider, community center, and cultural home for urban Indians.

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