“A1 Revisited: Our coverage of 1970 protest showed neglect of vital Native issues” – excerpts only

By Brendan Kiley, Pacific NW magazine writer for The Seattle Times 16OCT22

A Study of Indigenous Science and Rights

“It’s tricky to point at a lack.

“But in journalism, what’s left unsaid — whether it was overlooked or ignored — can be as corrosive as a falsehood.

“In this edition of the A1 Revisited project, we’ve taken a hard look at how The Seattle Times covered Native protests at the Fort Lawton Army base in 1970 — and discovered a profound disconnect between the newspaper and the community it was trying to cover.

“In missing the context, we missed the story.

Throughout March 1970, Native activists staged a series of dramatic protests at Fort Lawton, a nearly 1,000-acre military installation in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood — climbing over its fences, establishing an occupation camp at its front gate — to secure some land the federal government was trying to give away. Those protests birthed the nonprofit United Indians of All Tribes , and its headquarters at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center . But The Seattle Times didn’t convey the gravity of those events. 

“The Seattle Times was really behind the times when it came to reporting all this,” said Randy Lewis, a Wenatchi/Methow elder from the Colville Confederated Tribes. “What we were doing was viewed as a poor man’s civil rights action. They didn’t go after why we were doing it, what drove us to that action. People might’ve been more supportive and understanding if it hadn’t been played off as some trifle.” 

The events building up to the protests were many and complex: increasingly violent treaty-rights conflicts in South Puget The events building up to the protests were many and complex: increasingly violent treaty-rights conflicts in South Puget Sound; a federal “termination” campaign to dissolve tribes and move Native people to cities ; and the overtaxed volunteer networks, led by Indigenous women, to help this newly displaced, rapidly growing Urban Indian population.

The initial front-page coverage, by contrast, shines most of its light on the presence of movie star Jane Fonda and the amused reactions of foreign reporters, one belittling her as a “third-rate Vanessa Redgrave.”

The biggest problem is obliviousness. It’s a lesson we’re still learning: Unless we are connected with and listening to all the communities The Seattle Times purports to serve, we cannot hope to understand the significance of major events in these communities. 

The protest 

On March 8, 1970, around 100 Native activists and their supporters scaled the fences and bluffs surrounding Fort Lawton — a waterfront Army base, most of which is now Discovery Park. 

They had come to stake a land claim. 

It was a long time coming. “This was more than ‘some Indians just jumped a fence, put up a tipi, and waited for the police to come,’” said Joshua Reid (Snohomish), associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington. “This was part of a long-running effort to help ameliorate the impoverished conditions of Native families.”

The activists, including Bernie Whitebear (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Sinixt Band), Ramona Bennett (Puyallup) and Sid Mills (Yakama/Cherokee) were trying to establish a cultural center, housing and much-needed services — including job training and health care — on land the federal government was trying to jettison.

Six years earlier, the U.S. military had announced plans to deactivate the 70-year-old fort but keep around 15% of the property. The city wanted the leftover land for a park; the wheels started turning. Groups like the Sierra Club and the Magnolia Club (representing the wealthy neighborhood bordering the fort) formed a pro-park committee while U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson pushed a bill through Congress that would transfer the land from the federal government to the city at little or no cost. 

Native leaders had also been making plans. They’d asked for a piece of that soon-to-be-surplus property through official channels, but had gotten nowhere. “We were essentially saying: ‘You want another park, huh?’” Lewis recalled. “‘You’ve got plenty of goddamned parks! We don’t have anything!’” 

A campaign to secure social services might not have seemed especially thrilling or urgent to inattentive outsiders, but they were desperately needed. Partly due to federal relocation policies, Seattle’s Native population had grown sixfold between 1950 and 1970 (the city’s overall population grew by 13.5%) but the resources they’d been promised were scant. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had pledged help with jobs and housing — but often gave just token assistance, leaving people stranded and struggling. Medical care was a three-days-a-week clinic staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses…”

“The Fort Lawton demonstrators included battle-tested fishing-rights activists, volunteers with the Service League, decorated military veterans. A few were all three: Whitebear had been a Green Beret, Mills served as an Airborne Ranger in Vietnam and Grace Thorpe (Sac and Fox), the daughter of athlete Jim Thorpe, had earned a Bronze Star in World War II. Military service was important to these activists — at his request, Whitebear was buried in his Army uniform — adding another tension to their imminent clash with military police.

“Non-Native activists also showed up, including members of the Black Panther Party, local Latino activist Roberto Maestas and actor and activist Jane Fonda.

“While Fonda and others climbed the fort’s fences, another team scaled its seaside bluff with tipi poles and camping gear, assembling a makeshift settlement before MPs found them. The scene became a scuffle when one of the MPs shoved Mills, who punched back, but most demonstrators went limp, forcing MPs to carry them.

“Within hours, over 70 activists had been detained, then expelled from the base. A few of the men — including Whitebear and a car mechanic named Leonard Peltier (Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe) — were beaten in the stockade. Mills said he left with “a fat eye, a fat lip” and a dislocated shoulder.

“I guess we should’ve been intimidated, but apparently we didn’t have a brain among us!” Bennett joked. “We just recharged our batteries.” They’d be back soon.

The coverage 

“The next day’s front page of The Seattle Times covered the events in two short, incongruously lighthearted stories: “Jane Fonda Gripes About Detention at Fort Lewis” and “Indian ‘Attack’ on Fort Fascinates World Press.” (After being ejected from Fort Lawton, Fonda and a few others drove to Fort Lewis.)

“Between them, the two stories contain seven mundane quotes from Fonda (“I asked at one point to make a call to my lawyer”), six from amused European reporters calling The Times’ newsroom (“‘Tell me,’ he continued urbanely, ‘Do you have an Indian problem out there?’”) and none from Native activists, nor a mention of what they were trying to achieve”. END OF EXCERPTS

The Seattle Times PNW Magazine article