Facing The End, Activist Reflects On Life's Victories
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
------------------------------------------------------------------ ON A WALK THROUGH DISCOVERY PARK, Native-American leader Bernie Whitebear tells the story of how he took on the city of Seattle and the U.S. Army, and won. And though his cancer diagnosis is terminal, he isn't content with just reminiscing: He still works at the Daybreak Star Center on big plans for the United Indians of All Tribes. ------------------------------------------------------------------
Bernie Whitebear is dying of cancer. If he lives another year, he'll be lucky. But would somebody please break the news to him, because he's still planning projects, mostly big ones, and cracking jokes, mostly bad ones. Like this:
"When my doctor told me I had cancer, I said, `With all due respect, Doc, I'd like to get a second opinion.' The doctor looked at me and said, `OK. I think you're ugly, too.' "
Actually, that one made the governor laugh. Gov. Gary Locke and a thousand friends got together recently to honor the 60-year-old Native-American leader who broke onto the Seattle scene in 1970 with the Indian occupation of Fort Lawton. He's been the presiding elder of the region's "urban Indians" ever since.
His name has become synonymous with the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and the Daybreak Star Center, both of which exist to help an estimated 25,000 transplanted urban Indians.
Some of those who took part in the historic occupation attended the recent honoring ceremony, which doubled as a public farewell. When Whitebear's friends weren't laughing, they were crying; when they weren't crying, they were in various ways saying, "Thank you, Bernie."
Whitebear took it all in with equanimity, as he's taken everything since August, when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. During surgery, doctors found the cancer had spread to his liver and into his bloodstream. A transplant would do no good. So the timer began ticking then, and Whitebear says he's thankful for every tick he's got coming.
"If I've got six months to a year, that's six months to a year longer than if I was run over by a truck," he says, grinning.
He is a compact, gray-haired man with a deep voice and a way of talking that is slow. and. steady. like. a. countdown. He has never married and has no children. He sees life and work as the same thing. His close friends say he's part wise man, part wiseacre, easy to love, and hard to beat in a fight.
At the moment, he's taking a walk through Discovery Park with his dog, Star, and recounting the one fight that transformed his life. The invasion of Fort Lawton, he said, was the culmination of years of struggle. In a way, he'd been preparing for it since he was born.
Among the poorest of the poor
You develop a certain world view when you spend your first years on Earth living in a tent in the poorest part of a poor Indian reservation. Born of a Native-American mother and a Filipino father, Whitebear grew up on the Colville Indian Reservation. His mother reared six children; his father worked odd jobs.
"I don't think there was anyone poorer on the reservation than us," he said. He doted on his dog while telling the story, brushing mud off his mane and calling after him when he ventured too far ahead. "It was day-to-day, hand-to-mouth. Very tough."
Eventually, Whitebear moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. From there, life sped to a blur: He landed a job at Boeing, joined the Army, then the Green Berets, then went back to Boeing as an engineer.
Being poor taught him tenacity.
Being in the military taught him to be crafty.
Being an engineer taught him to be methodical. And Boeing taught him the language of bureaucrats, which, when negotiating with bureaucracies, comes in handy.
All these qualities came into play in 1970.
Native Americans in the U.S. were in a no-win situation. Poverty had forced thousands of them off reservations and into cities. But once they left their reservations, they could no longer get federal benefits. So thousands became stuck in urban centers with no money, no connections and no way to get medical or social-service help.
Whitebear and a handful of other Indian leaders, caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the time, got the idea of invading the Army's Fort Lawton in what is now Discovery Park. The idea was to secure a land base to serve Indians in Seattle, which had the largest urban Indian population west of Tulsa and north of San Francisco.
The fort was soon to be surplussed by the federal government. The city of Seattle wanted to turn it into a park. Whitebear and his followers protested that Indians had a right to part of the land that was originally all theirs.
One invasion after another
On March 8, 1970, two half-mile-long caravans of Indian activists converged on Fort Lawton. One caravan parked on the north side of the fort, the second stopped on the south side.
Because Whitebear had trained on the grounds as a paratrooper and a Green Beret soldier, "I knew every hole in the fence."
"This is one of the invasion sites right here," he said, indicating a fenced area along the road that leads to the Daybreak Star Center. "We pulled our cars up there, threw blankets over the fence and climbed over."
Several hundred Indians entered the compound and set up tepees. The Army responded with two battalions of troops, machine-gun nests and 14 truckloads of concertina wire. The Indians were arrested and hauled into the stockade.
Once released, they began planning the next invasion. They invaded many more times in the three months that followed. News of the movement spread. Protesters gained support from local citizens and anti-war groups. Some key politicians expressed sympathy. Then the ultimate blessing - Jane Fonda came to plead their case.
The popular support forced the city of Seattle and the federal government to negotiate. By the time the talks ended in November 1971, the city had agreed to set aside 20 acres for an Indian cultural center in newly created Discovery Park. For Whitebear, it was an unmitigated triumph.
Praise even from opponents
Bob Santos, the Northwest representative of the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a fellow occupier at Fort Lawton and now a close friend, calls the ailing Indian leader "a visionary."
Whitebear has asked Santos, King County Councilman Larry Gossett and Roberto Maestas, director of El Centro de la Raza, to be his pallbearers.
"I've carried them so long," Whitebear quips, "Now they can carry me."
Tiv Eagle Hawk, an Indian activist and Whitebear's opponent on many issues, describes Whitebear as "a quiet man who has never pushed himself into the limelight and yet has done so much for Indian people. He's one of the finest people I've ever known."
That's an opponent saying that.
Eagle Hawk had argued that the Indians should have fought for 100 acres instead of merely 20. Whitebear, never too proud to concede a point, now says, "Tiv was right. We should have gone for a hundred."
Still, the 20 acres have served their purpose. In the past 27 years, Whitebear has seen a ragtag occupation evolve into a social-service agency with more than 100 staffers, an annual budget of $4 million, and eight federally funded programs serving Indians - infants to elderly.
All of it is run out of the Daybreak Star Center, a $1.25 million concrete-and-glass lodge built with donations and state money in the aftermath of the occupation. Whitebear runs the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation from the center. It's also where he keeps a water bowl for his dog.
Next plan: a `crown jewel'
Fresh from the walk through the park, Whitebear sinks into a chair in his office, while the dog laps at the bowl. Articles about cancer sit on the desk, next to a paper bag full of medicines and herbs. He's undergoing chemotherapy and a series of purifying "sweats" in the center's sweat lodge.
Before he talks about the cancer, Whitebear would prefer to first talk about his current project, the People's Lodge. He's been talking about it for years. It's a proposed 148,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar Indian lodge for gatherings of 1,000 people or more.
He'd like to build it on the Daybreak Star property. But his Magnolia neighbors have said, no, not this time, Bernie. It would bring in traffic, neighbors say, and that's one thing we don't need more of.
True to form, Whitebear is undaunted. He is lobbying full time, making plans, arranging potential financing. And you just know he's mobilizing his forces for one last civic assault.
"The facility would be the cultural, educational, spiritual and economic crown jewel of the region for Native Americans," he said, now in lobbying mode. "It'll be something that everybody can be proud of."
OK, now about the cancer.
"We all die. And I know that, unless something stabilizes, I will die soon," he said, petting his dog, who has curled around his feet. "I think that's a given. I've accepted that, and I've prepared myself for it.
"Back in the 1970s, the average life span of the American Indian male was 44 years. I just passed my 60th birthday. I figure all the years I've gone past 44 have been a bonus."
You don't get the impression Whitebear is merely putting on a brave face. He seems genuinely at ease, peaceful. He'll admit, in his own quiet, slow-and-steady, deep-voiced way that he's lived an exceptional life, and in that life he's had the extraordinary fortune to have lived within his greatest accomplishment - literally.
The Daybreak Star Center is the house that Bernie built. He traveled a long way from the canvas tent to this house, and he knows it. And he's thankful. Now he's ready for the next journey.
"I don't know what's out there, but I don't think it's heaven and Christian, or hell and damnation. I don't think it's total finality, either, where nothing happens and you just become bug bait. If it is, so be it. But I have a feeling it's going to be a whole new experience, a new area to explore.
"I'll become an Indian trekkie, and I'll go where no Indian trekkie has gone before. And I'll be looking for other Fort Lawtons out there."
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