The takeover began at dawn. Indigenous occupation parties stormed the fort from three sides, from the south up the steep, 100-foot bluffs overlooking Puget Sound, from the north over razor wire-topped fences, and through the front gate.
On March 8, 1970, between 85 and 100 Native American, Alaska Native, and First Nations warriors, including women and children, breached the decommissioned Army base’s perimeter and announced they were reclaiming Seattle’s Fort Lawton. They were armed with only sandwiches, potato chips, sleeping bags, and cooking utensils, according to one news report.
The warriors hadn’t planned on meeting any resistance. The old Army base had been virtually empty and dormant for months, used only intermittently by Boy Scout troops and garden clubs. The federal government was decommissioning the base, making the land surplus, and the Native warriors wanted it back so they could build an Indian cultural center on it.
What no one knew was the 392nd Military Police Company, a reserve unit, happened to be on duty that weekend. An estimated 40 military police officers brandishing night sticks descended on the warriors. As they approached, Bob Satiacum, a Puyallup leader who helped plan the takeover, began reading the proclamation they’d prepared: “We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Fort Lawton in the name of all American Indians by the right of discovery.”
Since this was a valid proclamation, as valid as the one Columbus used, it’s fair to say in the few brief moments before the military police began beating them, the fort was theirs.
The takeover only lasted a few minutes. However, its impact was felt as far away as Europe. An Italian news agency contacted The Seattle Times asking if the city still had an Indian problem. It turns out Europeans were fascinated by the idea of Indians attacking a fort, something that hadn’t happened since the 1800s.
The Matriarchs Who Helped Seattle’s Urban Native PopulationThe Seattle Indian Center, originally started by the matriarchs of the American Indian Women’s Service League, provides Native people in need with resources like food, clothing, financial and employment assistance, community outreach services and a sense of community where their heritage and culture are recognized.Read Full Story
The takeover and four-week-long occupation outside Fort Lawton’s front gate came on the heels of the successful takeover of Alcatraz Island by the San Francisco-based group, Indians of All Tribes, just three months earlier. It was part of a wave that swept across the country called the Red Power Movement. Many direct actions happened during this period as tribes all over the country stood up for their rights and fought back against injustice from the government and from encroaching big businesses.
An excerpt from Frank Hopper’s upcoming documentary, “The Day the Indians Took Over Fort Lawton—And Won Land Back.” Warning: coarse language.
The Fort Lawton takeover has the unique distinction of being the only direct action of the Red Power Movement that was actually successful at winning land back from the colonizers, although the land came in the form of a 99-year lease from the city of Seattle.
Today, it’s easy to forget the original warriors who fought at Fort Lawton. Many Native tribes have become wealthy with the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and Washington State’s Boldt fishing rights decision. Many tribes now function more like corporations and their leaders more like hedge fund managers. All this tends to eclipse the sacrifices of the warriors who fought when Native people had virtually nothing.
That’s why listening to original warriors is important. A power is thought to be transmitted when Native people hear the stories of their elders. This power becomes increasingly rare and precious as these elders walk into the forest. Every year more elders are lost, and soon the medicine of their words will exist only in the hearts of those who sat, talked, and laughed with them.
Ramona’s Siege Tower
“It was exciting and sometimes dangerous, but it was always exciting,” says 85-year-old Ramona Bennett, a former chair of the Puyallup Tribe. She sits beside her bed in her home on the Puyallup reservation, smoking a cigarette. Several sleeping cats form blobs of fur around the room. Ramona’s deep voice and carefully chosen words have a tone of authority that’s hard to ignore, yet she loves to make people laugh.
She, along with her then 9-year-old son Eric, were members of the Fort Lawton northern occupation party.
“I was driving along the fence,” Ramona remembers of that Sunday morning in 1970, “and I looked down the side street and here comes Bernie Whitebear and Bob Satiacum running up the road carrying a teepee, with a bunch of Indians carrying poles running behind them.”
Whitebear, a former Green Beret and a Sin Aikst tribal member originally from the Colville Reservation, and Satiacum, a Native fishing rights protector of the Puyallup Tribe, were the leaders of the takeover. Ramona pulled her car, a Ford Galaxie 500 she was very proud of, right up next to the fence so the warriors could use it as a siege tower.
“Everybody waved all happy and jumped on my car and threw down a coat or sleeping bag or something and went over the fence,” Ramona says.
Later, when she went to retrieve her car, she found the roof nearly caved in from all the big warriors climbing on it, and the underside smelled of tear gas from the soldiers firing tear gas canisters at it. But she continued to drive it for years.
“I had to drive it like that because it was the only car I had,” she says, laughing.
The Roberts’ Counting Coup
Sitting at the kitchen table of his home in the town of Yelm, Washington, surrounded by family and members of the Medicine Creek Chapter of the Native American Church, of which he is the president, the now 74-year-old Yakama/Cherokee elder Sid Mills recounts the first takeover attempt. His great-grandkids occasionally interrupt the story to climb on his lap.
Sid, a decorated Vietnam veteran with the 101st Airborne, was certainly no stranger to fighting. He recalls that as military police confronted the Fort Lawton warriors, one big sergeant stepped forward, squaring off on Sid. He ordered the group to leave and went to push Sid back.
“I just dropped him,” Sid remembers.
A mountain of a man himself, Sid socked the sergeant square in the face, sending him crashing to the deck. After that, the melee began. Bodies and fists went flying as the male warriors and the soldiers went at each other. Most of the remaining Native occupation forces ran for cover.
Some, like Pueblo warrior Robert Free, a veteran of the Alcatraz takeover, and his friend Robert George of the Suquamish Tribe, actively drew soldiers from the main fight, a form of what Indians call “counting coup.”
“We were young and fast!” Robert Free remembers in a recent phone interview. “They started charging at us with Jeeps!” he says, but as soldiers would reach out from the pursuing Jeeps to grab them, the two warriors would suddenly change directions and elude their grasp. “They could not catch us!”
With military police in Jeeps right behind them, Robert and Robert were approaching the edge of the bluff and had no place to go, so they did a Thelma and Louise, he says.
The two ran straight off the fort’s western bluffs, launching themselves into the void. They landed in a patch of blackberry bushes, getting pricked and poked by thorns as they tumbled, bleeding, to the beach below. The soldiers gazed down at them in disbelief, and did not follow.
Sid’s Last Stand
Right after punching the sergeant, Sid was tackled by a soldier who managed to get one handcuff on him. Sid got away, but was tackled by another soldier who succeeded in cuffing his other hand. Somehow, Sid got away from him too, as the fighting raged around him.
Sid and several other warriors ran into the base chapel where Sunday morning services were in progress.
“We interrupted all that, went right in there, and told them we wanted asylum!” he says.
Soldiers and their families listening to the base chaplain’s sermon turned around in their pews to see a party of rogue Indian radicals fleeing a posse of military police. Before anyone could respond, the sound of military Jeeps pulling up in front broke the awkward silence.
“I looked out there at them and said, ‘F— it! Let’s just go for it!’”
Sid and the other warriors charged out the front door and into the arms and fists of the soldiers waiting outside. The soldiers overpowered them and transported them to the base detention center. When asked if he was still handcuffed when he and the other warriors made their final charge, Sid smiles.
“Yeah, but I didn’t care,” he says, his eyes twinkling, “I just wanted to fight.”
Sid’s initial punch and then his final charge at the military police reflected the frustration that he and the other Native leaders felt toward the federal government.
They had met one week earlier with Washington Sen. Henry M. Jackson and presented him with a detailed plan, written by Ramona Bennett and others, for turning the decommissioned base into a center for Indigenous arts, culture, and social services. The Native leaders hoped to turn the base into a facility to help Native people who had been displaced into the city by federal relocation policies. But the plan bounced off Jackson’s closed ears like a ping pong ball off an army tank.
“After that, we realized if we were going to get any land back, we were going to have to take it,” Sid remembers.
The federal government, and in particular the United States Army, had pushed Native people to near-extinction. They pushed and pushed, and when that sergeant went to push Sid, generations of genocidal trauma exploded into one mighty punch.
Perhaps predictably, the sergeant that Sid punched reappeared in the doorway of Sid’s holding cell. The military police had been processing warriors for release one by one, and the sergeant called out, “Who’s next?”
Sid stood and said, “I’m next!”
The sergeant pointed his nightstick menacingly at Sid. On either side of him were a line of military police.
“He looked at me and yelled, ‘You son of a bitch!’” Sid remembers. “‘If you’re next, none of you are getting out of here!’”
The soldiers poured into the little cell, swinging nightsticks. The warriors fought back—including currently imprisoned American Indian Movement protector Leonard Peltier, who had also helped plan the takeover—but it was no use. There were just too many of them.
An officer finally showed up and rebuked the soldiers for beating the warriors, and had Sid driven to the front gate and released. Sid suffered a dislocated shoulder and a swollen black eye, along with lumps and bruises all over. He immediately went to a nearby hospital for treatment. A spokesman for the base denied allegations of police brutality, according to news reports from the time.
The Legacy of the Takeover
Two more takeover attempts occurred over the next three weeks, and during that time warriors maintained a 24-hour occupation camp, named Resurrection City, outside the front gate. The occupation ended soon after the third takeover attempt on April 2, and federal charges against several of the diehard warriors were later dismissed.
After the occupation ended, Bernie Whitebear began negotiating with city, state, and federal officials to get at least some of Fort Lawton back for the benefit of urban Native people. He also formed and became the first executive director of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and the Seattle Indian Health Board.
Eventually, Whitebear and his organization reached a 99-year agreement in which the city would receive the land, but would lease 17 acres of the 1,100-acre fort, now called Discovery Park, to the foundation. It remains the property of the city of Seattle, according to the colonizers.
On this land was built the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, which opened in 1977. Today it continues to provide a venue for Native events and classes as well as housing the Sacred Circle Gallery of Native art.
Although the dream of creating an “Indian City” on the old Fort Lawton grounds was never realized, the takeover did succeed in raising the visibility of Native issues to a new, global level. Along with direct actions such as the 1969 Alcatraz takeover and the 1973 Standoff at Wounded Knee, Native warriors showed the government they were not extinct and could fight back. After that, politicians in Washington stopped talking about terminating tribes and disestablishing reservations and instead spoke of giving tribes economic opportunities with which to rebuild their nations.
This fighting spirit still shows. In 2016, Native warriors withstood tear gas, pepper spray, and freezing water canons protecting the Standing Rock reservation from damage by the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
It is this willingness to fight, to put it all on the line, including one’s own body if necessary, that protects Native people and cultures from extinction. And only by listening to the stories of elders who’ve fought on their behalf can Native people carry their legacy forward, and receive the powerful restorative medicine oral history provides.
Frank Hopper , Tlingit, is a freelance Native journalist born in Juneau, Alaska, now living in Tacoma, Washington. His work appears in Last Real Indians, The Stranger, and Indian Country Today. His self-titled YouTube channel features videos about Native issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. His YouTube link is https://youtube.com/c/FrankHopper1