Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center opens its doors on May 13, 1977.

  • By Antonia Kelleher
  • Posted 7/11/2016
  • Essay 11237
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On May 13, 1977, the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center opens its doors in Discovery Park, located in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood. Founded by the Native American leader Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000), with the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation as its parent organization, the Daybreak Star Center will serve as an "urban base for Native Americans in the Seattle Area," by providing invaluable cultural, educational, and social services to local Native American communities (Daybreak Star Center). 

Laying the Political Foundation 

The Daybreak Star Center opened in 1977, but the idea for establishing an urban Native American gathering space was conceived years earlier. Bernie Whitebear, whose mother descended from the Sin-Aikst Tribe, now part of The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, bore witness to the struggles faced by the urban Native community in Seattle. Whitebear, along with a dedicated group of activists including Bob Satiacum (1929-1991) of the Puyallup Tribe and Leonard Peltier (b. 1944), future American Indian Movement leader, led the non-violent take-over and occupation of Fort Lawton in 1970.

These leaders saw an opportunity for the local Native urban population with the passage of a bill signed by Richard Nixon (1913-1994), which granted non-federal entities the ability to obtain surplus federal lands for below the prevailing market value. The 1,100 acres of recently decommissioned land at Fort Lawton represented for Bernie Whitebear and his followers land that could be reclaimed for the Native community. Before the City of Seattle was able to obtain this land, Bernie met with lawyers to discuss their options.

Upon the suggestions of several attorneys, Bernie formed an organization that would speak on behalf of the Native community in upcoming negotiations. This organization would be known as the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF). In spite of the many institutional obstacles laid out before the Native community, the organization maintained a fair degree of political authority; the takeover of Fort Lawton was making national news and the newly formed organization was sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians. With this degree of national recognition, the National Congress of American Indians spoke to the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of Bernie Whitebear and his supporters.

Upon the request of the United Indians, the Bureau of Indian Affairs froze the decommissioned land at Fort Lawton at the federal level. At least for the time being, the City of Seattle was not able to legally acquire the land. Although this hold was short-lived, it provided the UIATF with enough time to submit a land application for Fort Lawton.

As dozens of Native Americans were maintaining a vigil at the main entrance of Fort Lawton, negotiations began to take place. Bernie Whitebear, Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), and Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) began negotiations in June 1971. On November 15 of that year, Bernie Whitebear publicly announced that the UIATF had signed a renewable 99-year lease for 16 acres of land (later expanded to 20) at Fort Lawton. In March 1972, this agreement was approved, executed, and incorporated.  


Although Whitebear and his supporters had conquered one major hurdle, they still needed to raise funds to construct their new gathering space and to develop the UIATF's cultural, educational, and social programs. Bernie and his staff created a 45-minute slideshow, voiced in part by the actor Chief Dan George (1899-1981), which traced Native American history in Washington state and highlighted the mission and objectives of the forthcoming cultural center. They presented this slideshow to numerous political and social organizations.

In addition to the many private and corporate funds raised, Whitebear negotiated with Governor Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925) for a $1 million state construction grant. In 1975, the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation broke ground on the project.   

The Grand Opening

On May 13, 1977, more than 3,000 people attended the grand opening of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. Lawney Reyes (b. 1931), a Sin-Aikst Indian architect, artist, author, who was also Bernie Whitebear's older brother, worked with Gerald Arai and Clifford Jackson of Arai-Jackson Architects on the concept and design of this building.

It was important to Bernie Whitebear that the gathering space could be used and enjoyed by both Native and non-Native groups. The Daybreak Star Center incorporated traditional Indian motifs in a contemporary space. The name of the center, chosen by Lawney Reyes, was inspired by the words of the Lakota holy man, Black Elk:

"Then as I stood there two men were coming from the East head first like arrows flying and between them rose the Daybreak Star. They came and gave an herb to me and said 'with this on earth you shall undertake anything and do it.' It was the daybreak star herb, the herb of understanding and they told me to drop it on the earth. I saw it falling far and when it struck the earth it rooted and grew and flowered four blossoms on one stem, a black, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow. And the rays from these streamed upward to the heavens so that all creatures saw it and in no place was there darkness" (Reyes, 112-113).

Along with the traditional Native American motifs and inspiration found throughout the center, the materials used to build the structure represented Native American tradition. For example, the Quinault Indian Nation donated the cedar shakes of the Daybreak Star Center, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation donated five truckloads of logs that would be used as the perimeter support of the structure, and the Makah Tribe donated additional lumber to the construction. These donations illustrate how important this new gathering space was for many local tribes.

Native American Artwork

The center would soon be a popular venue for Native American, as well as some non-Native artists, to display traditional and contemporary Native American and Native-inspired artwork. In addition to his integral role in the Native American community, Bernie Whitebear also served for a few years as a member of the Seattle Arts Commission. In this capacity, he garnered publicity for the upcoming Native American cultural center. In 1975, the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation received $80,000 from the City of Seattle's 1% for Art Program. In 1978, the UIATF utilized these funds by establishing a permanent art collection, The Daybreak Star Arts Center. The Daybreak Star Arts Center contains a collection of large works of art, including Blue Jay -- a 30-foot-wide, 12-foot-high sculpture by Lawney Reyes, which was added in 2004. Previously, this piece was on display for 30 years at the Bank of California building located in downtown Seattle.

In addition to a permanent art collection, the Daybreak Star Center maintains the Sacred Circle Gallery, which holds changing "curated exhibits of Native American art, featuring contemporary and traditional Native American Art by a wide range of internationally recognized and local artists" (Sacred Circle Gallery). The Sacred Circle Gallery, which opened in 1981, has featured the work of prominent Native American artists, including James Luna (b. 1950), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b. 1940), and Edgar Heap of Birds (b. 1954).

Daybreak's Role in the Community

Since its creation in 1977, the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center has been a gathering space that offers its community numerous cultural, social, and educational opportunities. The center has been the site of a preschool, as well as Native Workforce, Head Start, and Family Service programs.

The center has also served as conference space, a site of intertribal meetings, dinner theaters, weddings, and the Indian Art Mart -- at which one can purchase "native art, jewelry, pottery, drums, blankets, and so much more!" (Native Art Mart).  

Since its creation, the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center has hosted pow wows, including the Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow, a "three day festival of Native American and Indigenous Culture" which "features traditional Native American and Alaskan Native and First Nations drummers, dancers in traditional regalia, Native Food and Art" (Seafair Seattle Pow-Wow).

Honoring Bernie Whitebear

After a three-year battle with colon cancer, Bernie Whitebear passed away on July 16, 2000. On July 20, his wake was held at the Daybreak Star Center. The following day, thousands of people from near and far attended the pow wow at the center's Great Circle. This pow wow was held in honor of the man who had so greatly impacted the local Native American community.

Three years later, the 6,000-square-foot Bernie Whitebear Daybreak Star Garden, also known as the Bernie Whitebear Ethnobotanical Memorial Garden, was created.

In total, there have been some 40 different species of Coast Salish plants and other local species included in the garden. In the original plans for the garden, which included more than 80 potential local plant types, species were selected "from a variety of Pacific Northwest habitats; from open, seasonally dry meadows, to old-growth rain forests. A few plants from east of the mountains are included, highlighting the importance of trade and travel of the First People of this Place" (Friends of The Bernie Whitebear Daybreak Star Garden).

A marker accompanies each plant type, which gives the Native, English, and Latin name of the species. Unless otherwise noted, the Native names are in Lushootseed. NL indicates Northern Lushootseed and SL indicates Southern Lushootseed. The markers also include the traditional use of the plant -- whether it has a medicinal or ritual importance, whether it is a food, or whether it contains fiber or other craft materials. The Bernie Whitebear Daybreak Star Garden has been described as a "sacred and healing space for all people -- this transcends race, culture, creed, ethnicity, and generations" (American Community Gardening Association).


Lawney L. Reyes, Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006); Lossom Allen, "By Right of Discovery: United Indians of All Tribes Retakes Fort Lawton, 1970," Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project website accessed April 21, 2016 (; Sherry L. Smith, Hippies, Indians and The Fight For Red Power (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2012), 158-165; Bob Santos & Gary Iwamoto, Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship (Seattle: Chin Music Press, 2015), 48-61; "Sacred Circle Gallery," United Indians of All Tribes Foundation website accessed April 15, 2016 (; "Daybreak Star Center," United Indians of All Tribes Foundation website accessed April 15, 2016 (; "Seafair Seattle Pow-Wow," United Indians of All Tribes Foundation website accessed April 28, 2016 (; "Native Art Mart," United Indians of All Tribes Foundation website accessed April 28, 2016 (; Tom Stockley, "Lawney Reyes -- an Indian Carver for Today," The Seattle Times, May 16, 1976, pp. 182-188; Bill Dietrich, "Tribes Travel Upward From Fort Lawton," Ibid., March 4, 1985, p. D-1;  "Bernie Whitebear Ethnobotanical Memorial Garden," American Community Gardening Association website accessed April 20, 2016 (; "Tribal Gardens," NWIC Traditional Plants and Foods Program website accessed April 19 (; "Digging Up a Grade," The Daily of the University of Washington website accessed April 22, 2016 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Fort Lawton military police clash with Native American and other protesters in the future Discovery Park on March 8, 1970" (by Patrick McRoberts and Kit Oldham), and "Fort Lawton to Discovery Park" (by Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D) (accessed April 21, 2016); Antonia Rath email correspondence with Dr. Joyce Lecompte-Mastenbrook, April 22-25, 2016, correspondences in possession of Antonia Rath, Seattle; Friends of the Bernie Whitebear Star Garden brochure, 2011.

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