Native Community Celebrates History and Tradition

During the late 1960’s, it was the height of the civil rights movement in America. In the Native community, there were many causes. Nationally, occupations occurred at such places as Alcatraz and Wounded Knee. In Washington State, fishing rights were in the news and culminated with the historic Boldt decision, giving half of salmon catches to Native Americans.

In 1970, a movement arose in Seattle, Washington, to regain the land at Fort Lawton, which was being surplused by the US Army. Over the course of a month, and three invasions later, the cause had gained national attention. It took two more year, but finally an agreement was made to grant United Indians of All Tribes a 99-year lease on twenty acre in what would become Discovery Park. This is where Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center is situated, at the end of a winding road through woodlands and wetlands, on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound.

Saturday was the 44th anniversary of the first invasion of Fort Lawton. There was a gathering at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center to celebrate. The event, the first in a planned series, included workshops and lunch, sponsored by Three Generations, LTD.

To start the day off, people gathered at the start of Bernie Whitebear Way. This is the location of the first invasion, where the insurgents scaled the razor-wire-topped fences to enter Fort Lawton. In the soft morning mist, sage was burned, blessings were sung, and prayers were made. Then, the group of about fifty began the walk down the winding road to Daybreak Star through the hush of the forest.

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The grey skies and drizzle seemed an appropriate backdrop for such a solemn occasion. The group of mostly Native Americans was there to honor those who risked vicious beatings and imprisonment to try to secure a place for urban Natives to gather; a place for ceremonies and celebrations; a place of learning and safety; a place to call home in the chaotic and confusing world off the reservation.

Randy Lewis, who was there for the invasions, sang and told stories at historic points along the route. This is where we climbed over the fences. Here is where the soldiers beat us and dragged us out of the fort; there used to be a gate there where they took us out. We came back in at this gate. On the other side of the fort, we climbed back into the fort using the roots of the madronas to get up the bluff.

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Many of the children carried hand-drawn signs thanking Bernie Whitebear, Colville, and United Indians. They were quiet and respectful along the way, listening intently as Lewis spoke the history.

Back at the Center, the mist turned to a downpour. Nick Solomon, Lummi, was already preparing salmon for the lunch that was being served at noon. With Nick were two youngsters, a brother and sister, to whom he was passing on the tradition, showing them how to cook the fish on the open barbeque. These kids were old pros, having helped with another salmon feast two years earlier.

Inside, a crowd of about a hundred fifty had gathered; elders, babies and everyone in between. A blessing was made, an honor song was sung, and then Randy Lewis told the story of the occupation again, this time in its entirety. Last month, I interviewed Lewis and he told me the story. You can read it here.

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After sharing the history of the occupation, Lewis introduce several honored guests including members of the Snoqualmie Tribe, who recently made a generous donation to United Indians to help keep Daybreak Star open.

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Rey Pascua, who was with Lewis during the invasion at Alcatraz, was also honored. Pascua was recently honored for pushing for approval of State Senate Resolution 8688 to make October Filipino American History Month. In the resolution, Bernie Whitebear is honored, and Pascua presented copies of the document to Whitebear’s daughter, Laura Wong Whitebear, Colville, to Jeff Smith, Makah, Executive Director of Daybreak Star, and to the Seattle Public Libraries.

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Lewis also introduced Bob Santos, who is one of the Gang of Four, also known as the Four Amigos, which included Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas and Larry Gossett. Santos, who is writing a book about his experiences, told a story about when Whitebear mistook “1000 cherry trees” in Washington, D.C. for “1000 Cherokees”, and was ready to hop on the next plane to go support them.

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A wonderful salmon feast followed the speeches, including fry bread, other roasted meats, and vegetables. The blessing was sung by drummer Lawrence Walker, Gros Ventre/Assinobione.

Walker, who is a member of the 206 Singers, also led a song and drum workshop. It was great to see youngsters join in the drumming. Walker explained the sacred circle of the drum, the importance of the rug upon which the drum rests, how blessings are made to protect the voices of the singers. The children hung on every word.

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Another workshop was presented by Abrielle Johnny-Rodriguez, Cowichan/Tlingit, who showed girls how to perform the jingle dress dance. Some of them had never danced before and it was wonderful seeing them follow and learn. Johnny-Rodriguez is no stranger to teaching children and presents classes to foster children and children who have an incarcerated parent.

A grass dance workshop was presented by Brandon Olebar, Lummi. He explained the grass dance is special because it is one of the oldest dances. In the Plains, at the start of a Dance (what we call a Pow Wow), the grass dance is performed to stomp down the grass for the following dancers. Serveral young boys followed him intently as they danced around the floor. Olebar was very popular with the children and frequently had one or two holding his hand.

After the workshops, a mini-Pow Wow was held where the children could practice the songs, drumming and dancing they had just learned. Lawrence Walker presided as head man, with Abrielle Johnny-Rodriguez as head woman. Johnny-Rodriguez and Brandon Olebar were dressed in full regalia, as were many of the participants. There was a jingle dress dance and a grass dance, as well as an honor dance for Laura Wong Whitebear and Pam Nason, Colville, Kia Elder.

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Despite the weather, the celebration was wonderful. It pulled the community together as Elders shared their knowledge and wisdom and children learned history and tradition.

All photos by Ramona Ridgewell, Copyright © 2014 Ridgewell Services, LLC. All rights reserved

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