On March 8, 1970, about 100 members and sympathizers of United Indian People's Council (later United Indians of All Tribes) confront the 392nd Military Police Company, who are armed with riot gear, while attempting to claim part of Fort Lawton, a 1,100-acre army post in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood. The United Indians, who are armed with sandwiches, sleeping bags, and cooking utensils, want to create a cultural center for Indians and Alaska natives. They are evicted but set up camp outside the base. The protestors, who are led by Bob Satiacum, a Puyallup, include Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000) of the Colville Confederated Tribe, Leonard Peltier (b. 1944), who goes on to become an American Indian Movement activist and one of America’s best-known prisoners, and actor Jane Fonda.
By Right of Discovery
On March 8, 1970, protestors invaded the base at Fort Lawton from all sides, some climbing up the bluff from the Puget Sound beaches, others clambering over the fences. The main confrontation took place in a clearing near the edge of the base. About 30 Native American men, women, and children were setting up camp and had managed to erect a teepee when they were discovered by a patrol. The patrol radioed a 40-soldier platoon stationed at the main entrance to the base. The platoon piled into army trucks and, arriving at the scene, began to drag the protesters away to jail, although some escaped and roamed the base for a while.
The group's leader, Bob Satiacum, a Puyallup, began to read a proclamation explaining the action, but was drowned out by a sergeant barking orders. The proclamation was addressed to "The Great White Father and all of his people" and read:
We the native Americans reclaim the land known as Ft. Lawton in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. We feel that this land of Ft. 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, and transportation facilities.
The proclamation went on to explain that the Indians planned to use Fort Lawton to create a center for Native American studies, an Indian university, a center for ecology, a school, and a restaurant. The claim to Fort Lawton was based on rights under U.S.-Indian treaties promising reversion of surplus military lands to their original owners.
Breaking Up Protest "The Hard Way"
The arrested protesters were carried through a blackberry bramble to waiting trucks. When asked why they were carried through the blackberries instead of up the road, one military policeman said, "I don't know enough about this whole thing. But the Army always does everything the hard way." The major in charge of the operation ordered the men and women to be separated. The protesters were taken in trucks to the military police jail and locked in cells. They were later issued letters of expulsion and taken out the gate.
Meanwhile, the escapees entered into a cat-and-mouse chase with the military police. Some climbed back over the fence into the base. One woman put up enough of a fight to keep first three and then four MPs busy as they tried to drag her to a truck. The MPs received scratches, kicks, and bites for their trouble. Most other protesters went to jail peaceably.
A Scene of Chaos
A reporter managed to gain entrance to the jail and reported chaos in the cells, with children crying while protesters were being carried to the cells. One man was pushed up against a desk and handcuffed. Fonda, who participated in the demonstration, was issued a letter of expulsion and was later arrested with 13 other persons at Fort Lewis, 35 miles south of Seattle, where they had entered a tactical area.
Leonard Peltier was another of the protestors arrested. Peltier, of the Anishinabe (Chippewa) and Lakota (Sioux) tribes, had moved to Seattle in 1965 and was part owner of an auto body shop in the city. He went on to become a leading activist in the American Indian Movement (AIM). In a controversial 1977 trial, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1975 killing of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Many supporters worldwide believe he was wrongly convicted and have continued to call for his release.
While running his auto body shop in Seattle, Peltier had worked to help Indian ex-convicts and recovering alcoholics find jobs and support in the community. The Fort Lawton takeover, which was inspired by the 1969 occupation of San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island by Native American activists, was his first experience with the type of direct confrontation that AIM would later employ. Other participants described Peltier taking a leadership role, as when he encouraged released protestors not to leave the military jail until all of those arrested had been freed. Peltier left Seattle not long after the Fort Lawton action, and was soon traveling the country on behalf of AIM. He returned to the region briefly in the early 1970s to participate in the fishing rights struggle in which various Puget Sound tribes were engaged.
The Seattle Times reported that world press interest in the "Indian uprising" was keen. A representative of the Italian News Agency said, "You can't imagine how fascinating this story is in Europe. Indians attacking a fort in the West of the United States. Tell me, do you have an Indian problem out there?" ("Indian 'Attack' ...").
After long negotiations and Congressional intervention, the protest ultimately resulted in a solution permitting development of both an Indian cultural center and a municipal Discovery Park, now Seattle's single largest recreational tract, on the Fort Lawton site. The Daybreak Star Cultural Center, run by United Indians of All Tribes, directed by Bernie Whitebear until his death in 2000, opened in 1977.