Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center

The creation of Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, located at the former site of the Fort Lawton military base in today's Discovery Park, was the result of persistent protest and activism by Seattle's Native community. A coordinated effort to peaceably occupy the decommissioned Fort in 1970 triggered years of negotiation with city officials to reclaim the land for use by Native peoples. The opening of Daybreak Star in 1977 was a direct result of these actions, and marked the first time public land was officially dedicated for Native peoples' use in Seattle since the city was incorporated in 1869.

The Land

Salmon Bay Charlie's cabin
Salmon Bay Charlie's cabin, 1903
Image 170345, Seattle Municipal Archives

Discovery Park in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood is located on over 530 acres of wooded land and tidal beaches, with a majestic bluff overlooking Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. It includes the westernmost point in Seattle, named West Point by Charles Wilkes in 1841.

Indigenous Duwamish and other Coast Salish peoples have been living in this area since time immemorial. The original Duwamish name for West Point was PKa'dz Eltue (phonetically: pa-uq-dz-al-tsu) meaning "thrust far out." Large game such as elk and deer were abundant and hunted, and fish and marine mammals were caught and gathered off the shore. Stones were collected on the beach to be used for tools, as evidenced through archeological digs that have been conducted on the site.

We remember that the present-day city of Seattle is on the traditional lands of the Duwamish People, and we honor with gratitude the land itself and the Duwamish Tribe.

Fort Lawton

Map of Fort Lawton
Map of Fort Lawton, circa 1940
Map 908, Seattle Municipal Archives

In the late 1890s, Seattle donated land along Magnolia Bluff to the federal government for use as a U.S. military base. The post was officially opened in February 1900 and named in honor of Major General Henry Ware Lawton, a former Union officer who had also fought in the Indian Wars.

While the base saw regular use during its first 30 years, it remained small and over time it became less active and of less importance to the Army. At the same time, Seattle's growing population made the site more and more attractive to the city as a possible park location. In 1956, when it appeared that Fort Lawton would eventually be decommissioned by the Army, it was added to the City of Seattle's Comprehensive Plan as a possible site for a future park.

Soldiers marching at Fort Lawton
Soldiers marching at Fort Lawton, circa 1900
Image 170290, Seattle Municipal Archives
Construction at Fort Lawton
Construction at Fort Lawton, 1935
Image 170287, Seattle Municipal Archives
Presentation of regimental colors on parade grounds
Presentation of regimental colors
on parade grounds, 1937
Image 170282, Seattle Municipal Archives

A site with "magnificent potential"

Aerial of Fort Lawton
Aerial of Fort Lawton, 1970
Image 76373, Seattle Municipal Archives

Anticipating a surplus announcement, City Council passed Resolution 19807 on March 23, 1964, declaring the desire of the City of Seattle to acquire Fort Lawton, and officially requesting the support of Washington's congressional delegation to assist in that effort. Just one month later on April 24, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced that 85% of Fort Lawton would be declared surplus by 1967. This announcement spurred Seattle's efforts to acquire the site.

Seattle Mayor Dorm Braman formed a Fort Lawton Planning Committee with membership drawn from various interested county, city, and state agencies. The committee was charged to explore ways of financing the acquisition of the fort land, and to devise a general plan for various possible uses. Interest in the property was expressed by agencies such as the Seattle School District, Seattle Community College, the University of Washington, the Catholic Church, and both City and County park departments. Petitions from local community groups and individuals were submitted to the city proposing potential uses for the land. Several petitions called for preserving the natural area as a regional park. Other suggested uses included a golf course, cemetery, children's home, shooting range, or airport, and some advocated for making the land available for private development.

The Parks and Public Grounds Committee issued two resolutions in 1968 in support of Mayor Braman's continued efforts to secure the land for park purposes. Also that year, Seattle and King County residents authorized the issuance of $3 million in bonds for the development of a park at Fort Lawton. In an effort to change a federal law requiring surplus land to be purchased for 50% of its appraised value, members of Washington's congressional delegation began preparing legislation that would allow the land to be transferred to the city at no cost.

Aerial of Fort Lawton
Aerial of Fort Lawton, 1968
Image 170383, Seattle Municipal Archives

The anticipated transfer was temporarily derailed in 1968 when the Army released a new plan calling for the establishment of an anti-ballistic missile system at the base. Such an installation would have left little space for a park. Mobilized residents and the state's congressional delegation (in particular, Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson) persuaded the army to eliminate that possibility, and plans for a city park again seemed to be on track.

The Mayor and City Council directed the Department of Parks and Recreation to proceed in the preparation of an overall plan of development in anticipation of Fort Lawton becoming available to the city.  A scope of work statement issued in July of 1969 called for a design consultant to study elements such as neighborhood and traffic impacts, costs of maintenance and staffing, regional impact, and the long-term best use of the site for park purposes. "The Mayor, the City Council, and the Board of Park Commissioners are determined that the magnificent potential of this site must not be dissipated by fragmented or piecemeal planning and development," the scope reads. "We are willing to settle for nothing less than the finest park attainable."

Selected designers were invited to submit proposals, and in December of that year, landscape architect Dan Kiley was hired to design an initial plan for the transformation of the decommissioned property into a regional park. Also in 1969, Senators Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson introduced legislation providing for the transfer of surplus federal lands at little to no cost to state and local governments for park and recreational purposes. The legislation was signed into law by President Nixon the following year, and city leaders were counting on the transfer of the surplus Fort Lawton lands to be authorized under that legislation.

Urban Indians in Seattle

While city and national leaders were moving ahead with plans to turn Fort Lawton into a park, members of Seattle's Native American community saw the decommissioning of Fort Lawton as an opportunity to reclaim the land for use by Indigenous peoples.

The urban Indian population in Seattle and in other cities in the United States had grown significantly throughout the 1950s and 1960s, due to the federal government's termination and relocation programs. These programs aimed to eliminate reservations by terminating federal aid and services and moving thousands of Native Americans into cities, ostensibly for better employment and educational opportunities. Once relocated, urban Indians found few services available to support their growing community, and little to no funding available from any local, state, or federal sources.

In 1958, the American Indian Women's Service League (AIWSL) was founded in Seattle to provide services and support to the city's growing urban Indian community. Located in a downtown church, the volunteer-run organization provided essential social services such as emergency food and clothing, educational opportunities, and vocational counseling. It also helped to create a community network among Seattle's Native American population and worked to raise public awareness of American Indian culture while advocating for federal Indian policy reform.

However, efforts by the AIWSL and the Native American community to gain support from the city to establish an organized presence for urban Indians in Seattle were met with little success. In the 1960s, the League attempted to obtain municipal funds to help them develop a vacant lot in South Lake Union into a center for urban Indians, and had also petitioned the city for a portion of the decommissioned Fort for the same purpose. Both requests were met with little success. This lack of support and recognition, coupled with the desire for a community land base, caused growing frustration within the Native community and became an incentive for action.

By the Right of Discovery

sticker reading Fort Lawton, Indian Land
Fort Lawton bumper sticker, 1970
Box 4, Folder 1, Wesley Uhlman
Subject Files (Record Series
5287-02), Seattle Municipal Archives

Protest actions by Native American activists and their allies were increasingly happening in urban areas across the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Locally, the Puget Sound fishing rights protests and fish-ins were shown to be effective actions of civil disobedience towards pushing state and federal governments to acknowledge tribal rights while raising public awareness and support. The 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz in San Francisco by the Indians of All Tribes gained widespread international attention and was a particular inspiration for those who believed an active takeover should also be attempted at Fort Lawton.

The principal organizer of the Fort Lawton Takeover was Colville activist Bernie Whitebear. Whitebear had been part of the Alcatraz occupation and was an active volunteer with the AIWSL in Seattle and a leading advocate for Native rights. In early 1970, he and other activists formed the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF), which would plan and carry out the Fort Lawton action.

Protest proclamation
Protest proclamation, 1970
Box 16, Folder 1, Parks Construction
and Maintenance Records (Record
Series 5804-05), Seattle Municipal Archives

The takeover represented a new approach to tribal rights activism in Seattle, and one that was not immediately popular among everyone in the area's Native American community. In an interview recorded 30 years later, Whitebear explained: "There was a split in consensus within the Indian community. There were the conservative elements that thought we should sit back and wait, and there were those that felt that unless something happened like Alcatraz, then we'd still be waiting for another 10 or 15 or 20 years. So the two prevailing thoughts agreed that each would chart its own course, and I was with the element that felt that an active takeover was necessary."

On March 8, 1970, Whitebear and over 100 other Native activists assembled at the main gate of Fort Lawton. They climbed over perimeter fences and peaceably gathered together to occupy the land with drum circles and singing. The non-violent protest turned confrontational as military police arrived and began arresting protestors for trespassing. The media captured images of peaceful protesters being carried and dragged to waiting military trucks by armed MPs. More than 80 protesters were arrested. Remaining protesters continued to occupy the area outside of the Fort's gates, setting up a temporary camp called "Resurrection City."

A copy of the protest proclamation read at the takeover was delivered to city offices by Bernie Whitebear on March 24. The proclamation outlined the reasons and intent behind the occupation and began by invoking the so-called Doctrine of Discovery which had been used by Europeans for hundreds of years to take possession of land already occupied by Indigenous peoples: "We, the native Americans, re-claim this land known as Fort Lawton in the name of all American Indians by the right of discovery." The proclamation continued on to state that the land would be used to develop a center for Native American studies, an Indian university, an Indian center for ecology, an Indian school, and an Indian restaurant. It concludes, "We feel this claim is just and proper, and that this land is rightfully ours as long as the rivers shall flow and for as long as the sun shall shine."

Fort Lawton Takeover
Fort Lawton Takeover, 1970
Still from Moving Image 6625, Seattle Municipal Archives
Fort Lawton Takeover
Fort Lawton Takeover (Bernie Whitebear in center), 1970
Still from Moving Image 6625, Seattle Municipal Archives

Public Response

Flyer for Bernie Whitebear talk
Flyer for Bernie Whitebear talk, 1970
Box 54, Folder 5, Wesley Uhlman
Subject Files (Record Series
5287-02), Seattle Municipal Archives

The occupation lasted several weeks and garnered immediate media attention, both locally and nationally. Images of MPs forcibly removing the protesters ran in newspapers and on television. The demonstration was successful in bringing widespread attention to the grievances of the Native community. Letters and petitions in support of turning all or some of the land over to the UIATF begin arriving at City Hall.

Some letters advocated dividing the land between the city and the UIATF. "Isn't some kind of compromise possible - couldn't the land be both a park and a monument to the cultural contribution of American Indians?" suggested one writer. Another letter in favor of the UIATF land proposal pointed out that in Seattle "there are many parks, and no Indian facility of this type. Such a unique use of the land could be very desirable for Seattle, as well as for the Indians." Other letters in support called for the UIATF to have an active role in the planning process. "If and when Seattle gains the land at Fort Lawton," wrote one such supporter, "I urge you and the City Council to work with and for the United Indians of All Tribes to create an Indian Center on the land...the thing I am fearful of is that the white man again will create something for the Indians. I feel it is important for the Indians to be the major planners and creators."

Mayor Uhlman replied to letters in favor of the UIATF claim by reiterating his strong support for developing the site as a park. "I believe that to divide the Fort Lawton land, or to give all of it to Indian groups would seriously restrict its public recreational development," he wrote. "However, I believe equity requires that all other interested groups - Indians included - should share in the planning of the recreational uses of the area. There is room, therefore, for Indian-oriented facilities and activities. But whatever the ultimate response, the response should come as a result of a planning process, not as a precondition to it."

UIAT design sketch
UIATF design sketch for potential
Indian Cultural Center, March 1971
Box 15, Folder 4, Parks Superintendent's
Subject Files (Record Series
5802-01), Seattle Municipal Archives

Some letters opposing the UIATF claim were also received. One such letter maintained that allowing some or all of the Fort Lawton land for Native use would equate to "reverse discrimination" and that the Indians would expect money to develop the property. "I feel that they have plenty of space specifically reserved for their use in the multiple reservations," the writer added. Mayor Uhlman responded that while he agreed that the UIATF should not receive the land, he affirmed that they would be equally included "along with representatives from a whole range of interest groups" in setting final plans for the park.

While the Fort Lawton takeover increased public awareness and support, it did not deter city leaders from their plans to develop a park at the site. In April 1970, City Council unanimously passed Resolution 22502 reaffirming the determination of the City of Seattle to establish a public park "upon all lands declared surplus at Fort Lawton." In May, Mayor Uhlman formed the Fort Lawton Park Citizens' Advisory Committee and tasked its membership to work with him and the Parks Department on the development of Kiley's Fort Lawton plan. The committee chair was Parks Board Commissioner and prominent lawyer Donald Voorhees, who had been active for years in efforts to secure the Fort Lawton land for the city. Other members represented groups such as King County Metro and Parks Department, the Washington State Parks Commission, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Forward Thrust, the League of Women Voters, the Audubon Society, and the Magnolia Community Club.

As chair of the committee, Voorhees wrote to Bernie Whitebear asking for the UIATF's input on helping the city incorporate an Native American element to the plan for a park at Fort Lawton. Voorhees assured Whitebear that the committee would be "quite receptive to the inclusion of Indian-oriented facilities," but was clear that the planning process would remain on the city's terms. "We can do this without the valuable contributions which you and the United Indians of All Tribes could make toward that planning," Voorhees wrote in a letter dated November 23, 1970. "We would prefer to have those contributions but must continue with our task even though denied the assistance which you alone can give."

The UIATF remained steadfast in their claim to the land. In late 1970, they requested that the Bureau of Indian Affairs put an administrative freeze on the site, thus preventing the land from becoming surplus and making it unavailable to the city. The agency initially complied, but the freeze was soon lifted due to political pressure. In the meantime, the UIATF prepared a federal application to formally request a portion of the Fort Lawton land, which they submitted to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) on March 21, 1971. Caught by surprise, the City of Seattle rushed to submit its own application with the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR) the following month, requesting the entire surplus land at Fort Lawton for park and recreation purposes. Faced with competing applications, the General Services Administration (GSA) requested that UIATF and the City of Seattle work together to reach an agreement that would satisfy the needs of both parties.

letter of support
Letter of support, 1970
Box 54, Folder 2, Wesley Uhlman
Subject Files (Record Series
5287-02), Seattle Municipal Archives
letter of support
Letter of support, 1970
Box 54, Folder 1, Wesley Uhlman
Subject Files (Record Series
5287-02), Seattle Municipal Archives
Petition in support of UIAT
Petition in support of UIAT, 1970
Box 54, Folder 2, Wesley Uhlman
Subject Files (Record Series
5287-02), Seattle Municipal Archives
letter in opposition
Letter in opposition, 1970
Box 54, Folder 2, Wesley Uhlman
Subject Files (Record Series
5287-02), Seattle Municipal Archives

Negotiation and Agreement

site map from newspaper
Map of cultural center site, 1971
Box 15, Folder 6, Parks Superintendent's
Subject Files (Record Series
5802-01), Seattle Municipal Archives

Negotiations between the UIATF and the City of Seattle took place between July and November 1971. The primary representative for the UIATF was Bernie Whitebear, and the mayor's deputy Ed Wood represented the City. HEW Deputy Regional Director Thomas McLaughlin served as mediator.

After four months of negotiations, both parties reached a draft agreement which was submitted to Department of the Interior in October. The following month, a final agreement was reached and formally announced at a site dedication ceremony held at Fort Lawton on November 14, 1971. Attendees included Bernie Whitebear, Senator Jackson, Joyce Reyes from the American Indian Women's Service League, and Mayor Uhlman. The "Agreement Between the City of Seattle and the United Indians of All Tribes for an Indian Cultural Center" provided the UIATF approximately 17 acres of the 425-acre surplus lands, granted through a perpetually renewable 99-year lease with the City of Seattle. It affirmed the desire of both parties to "preserve the rich and varied cultural heritage of the Native American and to create a regional park which will attract and be enjoyed by all citizens." The agreement stipulated that the UIATF would have developmental and administrative authority to build an Indian Cultural-Educational Center that would be "Indian in spirit, simple and honest in design, to enrich and to be in harmony with the natural setting and uses of a city park." Both parties agreed that the center would be built in tandem with the city's plans for a park, and the city agreed to help provide funds for the project, with design proposals subject to city approval.

At the site dedication and announcement ceremony, Mayor Uhlman concluded his remarks: "It is perhaps prophetic that the original Indian name for the West Point of Fort Lawton was derived from a word meaning 'to thrust ahead'; the agreement we have reached is a thrust forward in the type of relationship possible between the Indian and the white man in America. As Chief Seattle said, 'We may be brothers after all.' We are trying to prove him right."

The agreement was signed by all parties, executed, and filed with the city on March 16, 1972. The city subsequently amended its original application to the BOR, and the UIATF withdrew their application to the HEW on April 3. The federal government granted the city the deed to the Fort Lawton land on August 30, 1972, including the right to lease a portion of the property to the UIATF. This allowed the city to begin negotiating a lease based on the terms of the agreement. After more months of negotiations and clarifications regarding property boundaries and facility ownership, Ordinance 104042 was approved by City Council on November 29, 1974, authorizing a lease with the UIATF for approximately 19 acres of land in Discovery Park for the purpose of establishing and operating an Indian Cultural and Educational Center.

Bernie Whitebear speaking to Senator Henry M. Jackson during the dedication ceremony for the lease agreement
Bernie Whitebear speaking to Senator Henry M.
Jackson during the dedication ceremony
for the land use agreement, 1971
Image 193058, Seattle Municipal Archives
Bernie Whitebear presenting Mayor Wes Uhlman with a blanket during the dedication ceremony for the lease agreement
Bernie Whitebear presenting Mayor Wes
Uhlman with a blanket during the dedication
ceremony for the land use agreement, 1971
Image 193059, Seattle Municipal Archives
amendment of city application
Letter amending the city's application for Fort Lawton land, 1972
Box 16, Folder 2, Parks Construction
and Maintenance Records (Record
Series 5804-05), Seattle Municipal Archives
withddrawal of UIATF application
Letter withdrawing UIATF application for Fort Lawton land, 1972
Box 16, Folder 2, Parks Construction
and Maintenance Records (Record
Series 5804-05), Seattle Municipal Archives

Planning an Indian Cultural Center

NW Indian News article on construction
NW Indian News article on construction, 1974
Box 11, Folder 5, Seattle Design Commission
Project Files (Record Series
9323-02), Seattle Municipal Archives

In March of 1973, the city appropriated $500,000 from the General Fund to support the design and construction of an Indian Cultural Center at Discovery Park. Additional support to the UIATF came from a $250,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, as well as donations of both money and materials from various tribes, businesses, and other organizations. 

The UIATF contracted with the firm of Arai, Jackson, and Reyes for design services. Architect JohnPaul Jones soon joined the effort. Among the conditions of the negotiated agreement was a requirement that the UIATF present the city with a Master Plan detailing siting and construction elements for the leased area. This plan was submitted for the city's approval in May 1974, and approved by both the Seattle Design Commission and the Parks Board the following month. It explained that the center would include an arts and crafts facility, theater, library and archives, outdoor area and recreation field, longhouse, and "a large multipurpose arena." The first building scheduled for construction was the arts and crafts facility, named Daybreak Star. This was chosen as a priority by the UIATF partly due to the multipurpose nature of the space, and partly because revenue from the arts and crafts program was intended to provide a solid source of long-term economic support. Daybreak Star would serve as a "mini-center" until the remaining buildings would be constructed on a phased schedule yet to be determined. The plan outlined a site design and design philosophy, and explained the general purpose, goals and objectives for the center as a place for Native art and community that aimed to "develop and sustain the sense of Indian identity among Indian people."

Site plan from Master Plan
Site plan, 1972
Box 16, Folder 9, Parks Construction
and Maintenance Records (Record
Series 5804-05), Seattle Municipal Archives

The name Daybreak Star comes from the Daybreak Star herb, which the Master Plan describes as the "herb of understanding" with four blossoms on one stem: a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow. The four geometrical roof forms of the Daybreak Star Center were intended to reflect the four blossoms of the herb. Lawney Reyes, one of the site's designers who was also Bernie Whitebear's brother, is credited with choosing with the name for the Center.

Following the city's approval of subsequent design drawings and plans, construction of the Daybreak Star Arts Center was scheduled to begin. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on September 27, 1975. With the construction of Daybreak Star underway, the UIATF soon turned their attention to the next phase of development planned for the center, the People's Lodge, which they hoped to begin building by late spring 1977.

The People's Lodge was designed as a large multipurpose arena with a planned capacity of up to 5,000 people, and was intended to host indoor sports and recreational events, concerts, lectures, educational programs, and conferences. In 1976, the Washington State Legislature approved an allocation of $1 million to be applied to the development of the Lodge, dependent on a match of federal or private funds. As the project advanced, residents in Magnolia expressed concern over the potential traffic and environmental impact to their neighborhood and Discovery Park. The Magnolia Community Club requested that the city administer an Environmental Impact Statement, and hired lawyers who took their argument to the federal agency considering the grant application for the project. These actions and the surrounding negative publicity caused federal funding for the People's Lodge to be denied, and effectively stymied further attempts to build and develop the site as planned.

Groundbreaking flyer
Groundbreaking flyer, September 1975
Box 16, Folder 12, Parks Superintendent's
Subject Files (Record Series
5802-01), Seattle Municipal Archives
Daybreak Star construction flyer
Daybreak Star construction flyer, 1976
Box 15, Folder 13, Parks Construction
and Maintenance Records (Record
Series 5804-05), Seattle Municipal Archives

Daybreak Star

The Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center opened on May 13, 1977. Opening day festivities included performances and art exhibits, and a tour of the 21,000 square foot building. Financed by public and private funds, the cost of the building totaled $1.25 million. In addition, many hours of volunteer work, including professional services, contributed to the project. The Indian Cultural Center Master Plan contains a summary of volunteer support received by the UIATF from the Seattle community, which included publicity, accounting, legal assistance, program development, and architectural and design services. In the plan, the UIATF praised the project as "a national model of what can be accomplished when a sensitive ear is lent to Indian people and their problems in a coordinated, effective, and united way." They concluded, "It is the hope of the UIATF that the conclusion and impact of this success story may be a model for all groups struggling for justice and the right of the natural exercise of their cultural identity within this country."

Bernie Whitebear Way dedication
Bernie Whitebear Way dedication, 2011
Image 183512, Seattle Municipal Archives

Although the UIATF did not receive the full amount of Fort Lawton land they'd originally hoped for, the actions of the protesters were enormously successful in forcing city government to formally consider, through direct negotiation, the needs and demands of the Native community. In following years, the Fort Lawton Takeover has served as an inspiration for other protest actions in Seattle, including the occupation of Beacon Hill School which led to the founding of El Centro de la Raza, and the occupation of Colman School, leading to the formation of the Northwest African American Museum.

Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center continues to be a model for civic and community partnership. Since its opening, it has consistently served as a gathering space for the Native community and others through cultural, educational, and social service programs.

Bernie Whitebear served as the director of Daybreak Star until he passed away on July 16, 2000. Eleven years later on July 16, 2011, the road to Daybreak Star in Discovery Park was officially renamed from Lawton Wood Boulevard to Bernie Whitebear Way.