Randy Lewis Talks about the Occupation of Fort Lawton

March 8 marks the 44th anniversary of the invasion of Fort Lawton by 90 Native Americans, led by Bernie Whitebear, Colville, an activist and leader of United Indians of All Tribes. The fort was being surplused by the US Department of Defence. In 1855, when the land was taken away, treaties promised the reversion of surplus military lands to their original owners.

After petitioning and being turned down by the federal government, Whitebear decided to take action. This led to three separate invasions over the course of a month, and ended with United Indians taking possession of 20 acres of the fort under a 99-year lease. This is where Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center now stands, on the bluff high about Puget Sound, on the north side of Discovery Park.

I recently had the privilege and honor of interviewing Randy Lewis, Colville, about his recollections of this historic event. Lewis is a big, gregarious man who seldom isn’t smiling. And he loves telling stories. He was there for the invasion and he is still a board member of United Indians today.

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Randy Lewis

Lewis was born on the Colville Indian reservation, and his folks owned a ranch, but he spent much of his childhood with his grandparents following the fish and the hunt, and root gathering. This gave him the privilege of growing up before the transition away from subsistence living, so he learned the old ways. His grandparents fished using traditional dip nets at Celilo Falls, a spectacular waterfall on the mighty Columbia River, before The Dalles Dam was built in 1957, which put an end to its thunder. Lewis remembers the smell of the churning water and the salmon, the roar of falls. He fished with his grandparents, and was free to climb on the rocks near the rushing water with the other boys.

As a boy, Lewis looked up to an older boy, Bernie Whitebear (born Bernard Reyes), who lived just up the hill from his grandparents’ home. Lewis remembers Whitebear coming to town on a Harley and all the younger boys chasing after him. Whitebear would continue to be a presence in Lewis’s life until his death in 2000.

Lewis understood the importance of getting a good education and moved off the reservation to attend boarding school as a junior and senior in high school. He never went back. He saw education as a vehicle to see the world. After high school, he became an activist, first joining the National Indian Youth Council, and then, at Western Washington University, he helped found the American Indian Student Union. He moved through several universities while an undergraduate. He later did post graduate studies at the University of Chicago at the School of Theology.

During the time Lewis attended Western, LaNada Means was mobilizing student committees at UC Berkeley to defend People’s Park. She asked Lewis to come out. He got permission and successfully mobilized students, who were given independent study credit during this time. He got cars to drive them out to Berkeley where the riots were about to take place. Shortly after they returned to school, they were again asked to come to Berkeley, this time for the takeover and occupation of Alcatraz Island. [1][2]

After graduation, Lewis returned to the Puget Sound region and participated in the battle over fishing rights that was taking place around Tacoma, including the Muckleshoot Treaty Trek. This movement led to the historic 1974 ruling that tribes that are party to the Stevens Treaties are entitled to take 50% of the fish available for harvest at traditional tribal fishing locations. [3]

While there, Whitebear asked him to join the movement to claim Fort Lawson. Lewis arrived the night before the first invasion.

On March 8, 1970, Lewis hopped on a Metro bus and rode into the fort, but finding only 4 or 5 participants there, he went back outside the gate. Outside, he found about 100 others, including Whitebear; Bob Satiacum, Puyallup; Ramona Bennett, Puyallup; Leonard Peltier, Anishinabe-Dakota; Richard Oakes, Mohawk, who led the invasion of Alcatraz; Grace Thorpe, Sac and Fox; and Jane Fonda, who was there to help bring national attention to the situation. Bennett’s car was parked near the fence and used as a platform to get everyone over the fence. The car was pumped full of tear gas and, years later, it still smelled terrible whenever the car heated up.

Once the insurgents were inside, the military moved quickly to corral them in a brutal counter-attack where the activists were beaten and dragged through blackberry briers as they were arrested and charged with “felonious riot”. [4] After being processed, they were released, outside again.

After about a week, they staged a second assault, this time coming up from the beaches to the south. Lewis was in the group that invaded from the south and he told me what happened. There were 96 in the group. They got to the beach below the fort via Magnolia Bluff, a rocky cliff on the south west side of Magnolia. Carrying a teepee and supplies, they crept out along the narrow breakwater late at night and held up under the madronas lining the cliffs until first light. They observed the guards to figure out their half-hour patrol schedule, waited for the guards to pass, then crawled up out of the trees, set up the teepee, and had a camp set up before the guards returned. Within hours, Colonel Palos came out to meet with them. After refusing to leave, the insurgents waited.

Not much later, about 4000 MPs arrived with their dogs. Lewis says he could feel them before he could see them. People fell to the ground in passive resistance, including Grace Thorpe, Sac and Fox Nation, daughter of Jim Thorpe. According to Lewis, she said, “it will take eight of you (the soldiers) to move me”. The MPs ended up rolling her away. The Natives were beaten and then taken to the stockade. Lewis ran back to the bluff with soldiers and dobermans in hot pursuit. He scurried down through the madronas and leapt off the bluff into Puget Sound. Some of the dogs followed him but were dashed on the sandstone outcropping. Lewis escaped. Near the camp, canisters and rolls of film were buried in the sand to keep them from being confiscated. Lewis and some others snuck back in to dig them up and then escaped over the fence “like Olympic gymnasts”.

In the weeks that followed, a camp called Resurrection City formed outside the fort. Hewlett’s Catering, owners of Tillicum Village, provided a catered meal each day [5], and the community rose to the occasion, providing dry, clean clothes and other support. There was support from some of the local tribes, but others worried about losing grants if they supported a radical movement. That conflict continues to influence the relationships between tribes today.

By the end of March, even though a decision was made to decamp, plans hatched for a third invasion. On April 2, 1970, the insurgents again scaled the fences. After the soldiers responded, Whitebear called a cease fire and spoke of his grandfather, Frank White Buffalo Man, grandson of Chief Sitting Bull, who told him the answer is in the sky. Just then, a skywriter flew by and wrote “Surrender Fort Lawton”. Some say it was hired by Whitebear himself. Whitebear took the opportunity to lead a final charge against the soldiers. They were thrown into the stockade for the night. The next day, Whitebear announced a transition from occupation to negotiation. [5]

At this time, the occupation became a media campaign. Certainly, the impact of Jane Fonda’s involvement cannot be understated. She and other celebrities brought the national spotlight on the plight of urban Indians in Seattle. She swayed public opinion both locally and nationally, which gave Whitebear a foot in the door politically to allow the bargaining that would follow the occupation.

It took two years, but in the end, an agreement was reached with the City of Seattle, who wanted the whole fort for a new city park, Discover Park. On March 29, 1972, United Indians of All Tribes was granted a 99-year lease on 20 acres within the fort. On this property, on May 13, 1977, Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center was opened. [5] The center stands on a bluff on the north side of Discovery Park. It is surrounded by woods and has a spectacular view looking north up Puget Sound.

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Daybreak Star and United Indians are at a crossroads. They are struggling financially after recent government budget cuts. It would be a shame to see the center close. Randy Lewis hopes the center will always remain with United Indians, supporting urban Indians the way Bernie Whitebear wanted. He wants it “to last a hundred years, to represent what we spilled blood for.” I have to agree.

[1] http://www.siouxme.com/lodge/alcatraz_np.html
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupation_of_Alcatraz
[3] http://www.muckleshoot.nsn.us/about-us/overview.aspx
[4] http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/whitebear.htm
[5] http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/FtLawton_takeover.htm

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