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Seattle City Council Blogs

Seattle Municipal Archives Feature: Bernie Whitebear, Native American Leader

For most of his life, activist and community leader Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000) of the Lakes Tribe (one of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation) worked for social change and justice for the native people of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Whitebear made many contributions to improving rights for Native Americans in Seattle and, in these activities, had many interactions with City government on various projects.In 1970, Whitebear left a job at Boeing to join the first free healthcare clinic for Native Americans in Seattle, becoming the first executive director in 1971. Whitebear is perhaps most well known for his leadership in the occupation at Fort Lawton to reclaim land in Discovery Park for the Daybreak Star Center. In 1970, to help accomplish this land transfer and to unify native people in the region, he co-founded the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF).Influenced by Indians of All Tribes and its occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, the UIATF took action to occupy land at Fort Lawton. Jane Fonda participated in the occupation, bringing the protest to the world stage.


Dept. of Parks and Recreation Facilities Maintenance and Devleiopment, Record Series 5804-05, Box 16 Folder 3. Seattle Municipal Archives

Seattle Times, March 9, 1970.

 

 

 

 

A manifesto by Whitebear on behalf of the UIATF to the City on March 24, 1970 stated “Since there is no place for Indians to assemble and carry on tribal ways and beliefs here in the white man’s city, we therefore, plan to develop: A Center for Native American Studies….,A great Indian University…..An Indian Center of Ecology…..An Indian School….An Indian Restaurant.”

“We entered our land,” Whitebear told reporters. “We are the natural inhabitants. We cannot enter our land illegally.”

After weeks of picketing and demonstrations at the local and federal level, negotiations resulted in a 99-year lease for an Indian cultural center on 16 acres (later expanded to 20 acres) in what would become Discovery Park. A ceremony on November 15, 1971 marked the agreement. In attendance were Senator Henry M. Jackson, Bernie Whitebear, Joyce Reyes of the American Indian Women’s League, and Mayor Wes Uhlman.

Whitebear was selected CEO of the UIATF and successfully coordinate fundraising for the building that became Daybreak Star Cultural Center.

Preliminary plans for Daybreak Star, Record series 5804-05 box 16 Folder 5.

 

 

 

 

 

Among other community service, Whitebear was a member of the Seattle Arts Commission from 1976 to 1978 and the Seattle Downtown Housing Advisory Task Force from 1989 to 1991.

City Council honored Whitebear with a Resolution in 2000, declaring July 17 “Bernie Whitebear Remembrance Day” for his tireless work on behalf of Native Americans. Among the many other recognitions he received in his lifetime were: an Eagle Spirit Award from the American Indian Film Institute, a Life Achievement Award from the Boeing Employees Event Staff, a Citizen of the Decade State of Washington Governor’s Award, a University of Washington Distinguished Alumnus Award, and a Distinguished Citizen Medal from the City of Seattle.In 2003 the Leschi Community Council received a Neighborhood Matching Fund grant to create a Dreamcatcher memorial to two American Indian leaders: Bernie Whitebear and Luana Reyes. Located at 32nd and Yesler Way, the artwork serves as an ongoing commemoration of Indian culture and as a focus for ongoing education. The Community Council worked with the Seattle Department of Transportation which owned the property; the artist, Lawney Reyes; and Arai/Jackson Architects and Planners to design the maintenance free and meaningful work of art to honor Reyes and Whitebear.

 

 
Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, Record series 5756-03. Box 44 Folder 16.


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