Indians on Monday commemorated the occupation of Fort Lawton 40 years ago Monday, which ultimately led to the creation of Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.

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With drumbeat and ceremony, a parade of Indian people from many nations on Monday commemorated the invasion of Fort Lawton 40 years ago.

On March 8, 1970, more than 100 Indian people and their allies stormed the property — later part of Discovery Park — taking a portion of the land “by right of discovery” for the use of Indian people.

The civil disobedience ultimately led to the creation of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center at Discovery Park, which opened in 1977.

But first came a hard-fought struggle, watched around the world. Activist actress Jane Fonda joined the protesters, bringing international media attention as she was arrested.

The protest, which lasted nearly a month, grew out of a new, more confrontational form of protest for Indian civil rights, beginning in the 1960s with the fish-ins at Nisqually and Puyallup and the occupation of the abandoned penitentiary at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay for 19 months beginning in 1969. That action was ultimately joined by thousands of Native American activists and sympathizers, including some of the leaders of the action at Fort Lawton: Colville tribal members Randy Lewis and the late Bernie Whitebear.

Walking in the march Monday, Lewis remembered the Fort Lawton protesters driving en masse to the fort, red cloth banners streaming from their vehicle antennas. They gathered at the fort’s front gate as the occupation’s principal organizer, Whitebear, read a proclamation declaring that the Indians were reclaiming the land.

“Then all hell broke loose,” Lewis said. “MPs [military police] descended on us, Jeeps were turned over, they started whaling on us, and people were thrown in jail.” In news accounts of the time, protesters said they needed medical treatment for their injuries, while the military denied using excessive force.

Lewis and other activists set up an encampment outside the gate. “We laid siege. We would not give up, and the military would not surrender. Sometimes there were 20 of us, sometimes there were 300.”

He remembered one night he was encamped alone when a car full of opponents drove by, throwing bottles. He retaliated with a shovel full of hot coals from his campfire, setting the interior of their car aflame. “That’s the way it was back then,” Lewis said.

Cecile Hanson, chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe, remembered her husband driving onto the fort and seeing military police chasing Indian women to arrest them.

“My husband would not let me out of the car,” she said.

Ron Alexander, a Lummi tribal member, said he was just a kid when his aunt brought him to the demonstration. “It was like the stuff they do in the South; they thought they could abuse us because we weren’t like them, we were lesser than white people.”

The action was a multicultural effort. Roberto Maestes, founder of El Centro de la Raza, remembered being helped over the fence and joining in the fray — and taking careful note. He and his supporters took over a school a few years later that became the home of El Centro.

“We owe a great debt to the courage of the Indian people; they got it started,” Maestes said.

The protesters stormed the grounds inside the gate three times before finally dispersing — and beginning the negotiations that led to the provision of surplus government property for the center.

Today the center provides a range of services for people of any ethnicity, including Head Start and day care. Marty Bluewater, executive director of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, which runs the center, sees a special mission to serve the more than 85,000 Indian people, from tribes all over the country, living in the King County metro area — about 20 percent of them below the poverty line.

“Casinos have not miraculously solved everything,” Bluewater said.

Asked how the struggle begun here 40 years ago ended, Lewis answered, “It hasn’t. It still goes on every day.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com