100 Years of Activism

1972–74: Native Activists Fight for Their Rights to Fish

Plus: Students-turned-protesters occupy a Beacon Hill schoolhouse—known today as the El Centro de la Raza community center.

By Madeline Ostrander and Valerie Schloredt November 21, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Seattle City Council member John Miller addresses Beacon Hill occupiers, October 12, 1972.

1972: Mexican Americans occupy a Beacon Hill schoolhouse

In the 1970s, Chicanos in Seattle sometimes called themselves an “invisible minority.” Economically disadvantaged from their roots in migrant farmwork, Mexican Americans in Seattle were striving for upward mobility and greater security—and for that, they needed recognition and a community hub for bilingual education, social services, and child care. 

The boarded-up schoolhouse on top of Beacon Hill was the perfect venue. On October 11, 1972, frustrated by the city’s inaction, a group of Chicano ESL students-turned-activists let themselves into the building and set up a peaceful occupation. 

They were the first of a coalition whose members took turns staying in the building round the clock until the city council finally gave their lease the okay. 

Today the old school is El Centro de la Raza, a model community center that has filled the classrooms with a broad array of educational and social programs. Now a fixture of the city, El Centro is so well established that it was recently able to build 112 units of attractive affordable housing next door. 

The development also created a new gathering place at Plaza Roberto Maestas, named after the late community leader who came to Seattle as a migrant laborer, got a college degree, made multiracial unity and social justice his life’s work—and once, as a young radical, spent months occupying an unheated, out-of-repair schoolhouse.

1974: Native activists fight for their rights to fish

One of the clearest things Georgiana Kautz remembers from the years she fished at Frank’s Landing, a small community of Native families on the Nisqually River east of Olympia, is the sight and sound of wingbeats, as the sandhill cranes sensed trouble. She and her husband, Nugent, would go in the dark with nets, their boat, and fishing gear to meet friends—including Billy Frank Jr., whose family owned six acres on the river there, and activists like Donald and Janet McCloud and Al and Maiselle Bridges. Together they fished not just as a means of sustenance but as an act of protest, a “fish-in.” When the birds stirred, the men knew state enforcement agents were coming with flashlights to find them.

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Actor Marlon Brando and tribal leader Bob Satiacum net fish on the Puyallup River, March 2, 1964.

Treaties signed by the U.S. government in 1854 and 1855 left Native people in Washington with rights to fish at their “usual and accustomed grounds,” but over the decades, state regulators infringed more and more. By the 1950s, if you were a Native American dropping a net in a river, you could be harassed, arrested, or have your equipment confiscated. In the 1960s a group of young Natives defiantly fished anyway: If the state tried to stop them, they would fight back or take the matter to court. Confrontations escalated: State officials brought tear gas, clubs, and pepper spray, and Native Americans began arming themselves with rifles. “There were a lot of fights in the middle of the night,” recalls Kautz, “even women being dragged down and strip-searched like drug users.” 

In 1970, days after the arrests of more than 60 people at a fish-in on the Puyallup River, the U.S. attorney for Western Washington filed a complaint against the state for violating Native rights. On February 12, 1974, federal judge George Boldt decided in favor of Native people—ruling that half of the annual fish catch in the state belonged to the tribes.

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Janet McCloud

The decision had far-reaching implications. Puget Sound tribes have taken an active hand in restoring fish and shellfish habitat and now run commercial fishing operations generating tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue. More recently, tribal fishing rights factored into the state’s decisions to turn down permits for building massive coal export terminals.

“A part of the Boldt decision was moving us…we did have a voice, and they had to start listening to us,” says Kautz. She became the Nisqually Tribe’s full-time fish manager in 1991, and at 76, she is still working.

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