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To claim the Discovery Park bluff that serves as a spiritual and cultural respite in Seattle, local Native Americans in 1970 surrounded a military fort and scaled the fences.

The invasion of Fort Lawton, when more than 100 people covered razor wire with blankets to ensure Indians got a piece of Fort Lawton when it was decommissioned, is a proud moment for Seattle’s urban Indians. It led to the construction of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center and a vision for a 96,000-square-foot complex to commemorate and celebrate indigenous culture.

The rest of the complex was never built after Daybreak Star was completed in 1977, and now Daybreak Star faces a financial crisis. Program and governmental cuts have left the center nearly $300,000 in debt, and losing money every month, even after devastating layoffs.

For six months, the board and the community have grappled with options. The city owns Discovery Park, but the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation owns the Daybreak Star building and has 60 years remaining on its 99-year lease on the land. If the foundation were dismantled or bankrupted, the center’s ownership would be up for grabs.

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“We’ve stared death in the face, and we’re taking it very seriously,” said board Chairman Jeff Smith.

Daybreak Star provides practical services for Native Americans living in Seattle who might not be near their own tribal headquarters. It has parenting classes, a workforce-readiness program and an elders program that operates like a senior center.

The United Indians of All Tribes Foundation provides services to about 1,000 people every year.

It’s also a spiritual home for the area’s 10,000-or-so urban Indians and Native Alaskans — a place for powwows and ceremonies, and where on any day a traditional song might echo through the hallways.

Joseph McCormick started at Daybreak Star six months ago as a financial officer.

He found Daybreak Star in financial shambles, having just lost its biggest program, Head Start, in April, and cut its budget by $2.3 million. It was on its seventh or eighth interim executive director, with no reserve fund and a portion of the community in denial.

McCormick realized quickly enough that Daybreak Star’s financial problems would not be solved with spreadsheets and ledgers. He expressed the reality of the situation in an accountant’s words: “We’ve been in a contraction,” he said, “and it has had an emotional component.”

The possibility of losing Daybreak Star is particularly painful for Seattle’s Indians, for whom the center is a victory amid many stories of loss.

So the leaders are doing something out of character for an organization focused for decades on protecting its own: reaching out. They are having meetings, asking for money and expertise, telling their story.

It’s what Bernie Whitebear would have done, said interim Executive Director Minty Longearth.

No conversation about the cultural center is possible without mention of Whitebear, the activist and cultural leader who led the Fort Lawton occupation and whose vision and relationships were the foundation for Daybreak Star and the foundation that owns it.

Whitebear died of cancer in 2000, and in some ways the center has been on autopilot since then, Longearth said.

“The reality is that Bernie’s vision 43 years ago … things have to change and the way we did things is based on what was available then,” she said.

The organization’s plain-spoken fundraising letter pleads for money to cover operating costs and debt. “With over sixty years left on our 99 year lease with the City of Seattle, we are committed to keeping our founder, Bernie Whitebear’s, vision and dream alive,” it says.

“If you look at the situation,” Smith said, “it looks very tough. But our assets and community are wealthy.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter

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