Bernie Whitebear, the Native American activist who devoted his life to pressing for tribal-fishing and land rights in Washington, is now immortalized on the renamed "Bernie Whitebear Way" that leads up to the Daybreak Star Center at Discovery Park.

Share story

What’s in a street name? A lot, if that name is Bernie Whitebear.

The iconic Native American activist, who devoted his life to pressing for tribal-fishing and land rights in Washington, is now immortalized on what was Lawton Wood Boulevard on the renamed “Bernie Whitebear Way” that leads to the Daybreak Star Center at Discovery Park.

“The government that Bernie Whitebear fought against … now honors him,” said Mayor Mike McGinn, at the unveiling ceremony at the 26th annual Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow on Saturday at Discovery Park.

“He left a tradition in this town that we can all draw inspiration from. That people without power can have power.”

Forty-one years ago, Bernie Whitebear was the standard-bearer for the symbolic 1970 campout of Fort Lawton at Discovery Park. He led a 100-person coalition of Native Americans, minority and progressive white groups in reclaiming the military base that was originally tribal land. Whitebear and hundreds of sympathizers occupied Fort Lawton for months, despite the Army’s attempts to kick the protesters off the land.

After negotiations and congressional intervention, Whitebear and the Native Americans were granted the 20-acre piece of what became Discovery Park and the creation of the Daybreak Star Center.

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Gossett was with Whitebear at the 1970 camp out. Gossett said that the Daybreak Center and other rights that Indians enjoy today would not exist without Whitebear.

“He was a great uniter and leader,” said Gossett at the ceremony.

The dedication was the centerpiece of the annual Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow Saturday, which marked the 11th year of Whitebear’s death. The two-day tribal celebration was organized by the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.

The powwow showcases traditional Indian cooking, jewelry-making and dancing. Throughout the day, tribes from the United States and Canada danced in full tribal regalia and eagle-feather headdresses.

“Bernie’s name lives here every day,” said Henry Cagey, the interim executive director of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. Cagey said that Whitebear was a visionary for the people of Seattle and allowed celebrations like the powwow to exist.

Cagey cited shrinking budgets as a problem plaguing the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. This year, for instance, the powwow was shortened to two days rather than three in order to save money. It costs about $80,000 to put on the event, Cagey said. They are expecting about 10,000 people to make the trek to Discovery Park.

That message of reclaiming a Native American heritage resonated with Sabrina Ryan, a junior at the University of Washington and a member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

“So many people have one foot inside the white world and one foot in the native world, and you’re always forced to walk both roads,” said Ryan.

The Discovery Park Pow Wow was the first Seattle tribal celebration for Sheila Chee Chief, of Four Corners, N.M., and her family.

Chief had traveled the powwow circuit, loading up her van and seven-person family for the summer-long drive from New Mexico, through Wyoming, Montana, Canada, and eventually to Seattle.

“It’s wonderful to see everyone together,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Amy Harris: 206-464-2212 or aharris@seattletimes.com