When Native Americans invaded Fort Lawton

SEATTLE -- Randy Lewis was 23 years old when he invaded Magnolia’s Fort Lawton. He was fresh off occupying Alcatraz Island, where he had met Bernie Whitebear, another Native American activist from the Colville reservation in northeast Washington.

Lewis recalled when Whitebear came to him with news the government planned to make Fort Lawton a federal surplus, meaning it would be offered to non-federal groups at a steep discount.

"So Bernie said, 'If it’s gonna be declared federal surplus, then Native Americans have first refusal rights,'" Lewis said.

They tried to stake a claim on the land as a place to serve their struggling population of urban Indians.

"We needed an educational center, we needed a health care center, so many things," Lewis said.

According to Lewis, they applied for the federal surplus but were ignored. At the time, Whitebear had said that if it took an occupation to get their point across, then that’s what they would do.

"The plan was just to come in originally. See, we didn’t expect to be attacked," Lewis said.

It was March 8, 1970, and it was chaos. When about 100 Native Americans and supporters scaled the fort, the military police quickly outnumbered them.

"All hell was breaking loose," Lewis said. "The Jeeps were trying to run people down. Jeeps were flipped, vehicles destroyed. Little kids had run and hidden under the barracks. The MPs were trying to flush them out so they were throwing grenades underneath."

"Did they know they were kids?" asked Q13 reporter Simone Del Rosario.

"I don’t know," Lewis replied. "I don’t think they really cared at that point."

The military police kicked out the women and children and locked up the men. Lewis said they were beaten, bones were broken and they were only released when a human rights lawyer stepped in.

"He had to come in and, literally, with a writ, get us out."

The first invasion had failed  but the movement was gaining ground with public opinion. The activists had given the media front-row access to their cause. Actress Jane Fonda was there and helped draw international attention.

They readied for their second strike, this time climbing the cliffs.

"I went up to the berm to look and as far as I could see, stretched out MPs in riot gear, big shields," Lewis said.

They were hauled off again and dozens were arrested. One more attempted invasion later and their fight was no longer physical.

"From then on it became the battle in the public media," he said.

It was a battle they would eventually win. They didn’t get all 1,100 acres, many of which would become today’s Discovery Park. But United Indians for All Tribes secured 20 acres, and with it they created a cultural center, family services, education classes and a preschool. It opened in 1977.

"If you can imagine what the celebration was like when we opened this building, when we had the pow wow, it was incredible. What was once thought of as a fantasy became reality," Lewis said.

The cultural center remains as a tangible result of their civil rights movement to pass on to the next generation.