Coming Together

A Discovery Park Peace Offering

A plan to create a public park on a former military site ended decades of discord on Magnolia Bluff.

By Benjamin Cassidy and Angela Cabotaje March 7, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Residents hoping for a park on the site of what was Fort Lawton wanted to swap Nike defense missiles like these for open green space.

Image: MOHAI

Picnics or missiles. That was the choice, as one Seattle scientist put it, the city faced in 1968 as it weighed the fate of Fort Lawton.

For decades, hundreds of scenic acres on Magnolia Bluff served as an often-sleepy U.S. Army post. But late in the LBJ era, the Pentagon proposed the construction of an anti-ballistic missile facility on the grounds. Outrage ensued. A citizens group knew that beneath the heavily logged area with barracks and scores of other military buildings lay the roots of a sprawling city park. Setting up a combustible target close to a major city, scientists also noted, might be a bad idea.

The Pentagon heeded those calls for a safer, more inclusive use of Fort Lawton, shooting down their own missile idea just before Christmas of 1968. Critically, lawyer Donald Voorhees and other park advocates helped ensure the city wouldn’t have to pay for those surplus government acres. The feds would finally fork over the land for free in 1972.

West Point, the northern marker of Elliott Bay, within Fort Lawton in January 1972.

The debate over Fort Lawton’s future was hardly the only quarrel at a site built for conflict. During World War II, a melee between Black troops and the Italian prisoners-
of-war broke out there after heavy drinking. In the end, one Italian POW was found dead, hanging from a wire. A faulty investigation into the skirmish led to the wrongful conviction of 28 Black soldiers. The military apologized—64 years later. And in 1970, Native American activists entered the base to reclaim land where Indigenous people once hunted elk and gathered bulb-like roots of the camas plant. The protest led to the creation of a cultural center on the grounds.

The Discovery Park plotted in an initial 1972 master plan—composed by landscape architect Daniel Kiley—is more or less what we see today: a testament to the Puget Sound’s biodiversity, a place where a forest canopy meets the sea. Visitors traversing its 534 acres might spot a barn owl between branches or an orca just off shore. The site’s military history hasn’t vanished—a historic district preserves some architectural relics—but it’s a sideshow to its natural beauty.

That plan, celebrated this year by staunch volunteer defenders Friends of Discovery Park, called for this “open space of quiet and tranquility for the citizens of this city.” It was a swerve to serenity, delivered with a hint of what’s become Seattle’s preferred form of belligerence—passive aggression. —Benjamin Cassidy


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Bernie Whitebear reads a proclamation to end the encampment protest of Native activists at Fort Lawton on April 3, 1970.

What Happened at Daybreak

The missiles were out at Fort Lawton, but Bernie Whitebear feared Indigenous people would be too, despite the U.S. treaties with Native tribes declaring that any surplus military land be returned to their original owners.

So in the early morning of March 8, 1970, Whitebear and about 100 other supporters of the United Indian People’s Council—today the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation—clambered over fences and scaled cliffs in hopes of reclaiming the land. Among them, Roberto Maestas, who used the event as inspiration for his own occupation two years later.

Sandwiches, cooking utensils, and sleeping bags in tow, the activists set up camp. They were met by a 40-member deployment of the 392nd Military Police Company decked in riot gear. Protesters were dragged to trucks, manhandled (although the military denied using excessive force), and booked in jail, but it was too late. Public sympathy and attention, fueled by the presence of protester and actress Jane Fonda, was already fixed on the tumult over these 1,100 acres.

The activists stayed in an encampment just beyond the fort gates for four months until the city council granted them a 99-year lease to build an Indigenous cultural center there. The land was officially transferred to UIATF in August 1972, and Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center opened here five years later. 

Bernie Whitebear and senator Henry Jackson at the land-use agreement ceremony in 1971.

“Cultural affirmation is the greatest form of empowerment...especially when you’re disenfranchised and when you’re surviving institutionalized white supremacy,” says José E. Montaño, curator of Daybreak’s Sacred Circle Gallery.

Today, Daybreak is an indelible part of Discovery Park, but UIATF still seeks to complete its vision. A lodge, something in the master plans, faces approval roadblocks from some Magnolia neighbors disgruntled by the idea of obstructed views and construction. More than 50 years later, it appears, the fight continues. —Angela Cabotaje

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