Clara Fraser interviews Ramona Bennett
Puyallup Tribal Chairwoman
Clara Fraser
volume:  
volume 2
issue 2
Fall 1976
imagestuff
Ramona Bennett, the leader of the Puyallup Tribe and chief organizer of the Cascadia Center takeover, granted an hour-long interview on October 25 to Clara Fraser, a Freedom Socialist editor, FSP founder and spokesperson, and longtime activist in support of the struggle for Native American rights.

The interview took place in the lounge of the newly liberated center, renamed the Chief Leschi Indian Medical Building (CLIMB!). Frequently interrupted by reports from tribal staffworkers, and once by reporters from a Seattle television station (whom Ms. Bennett asked to wait until the interview was concluded), the two women militants discussed topics ranging from federal and state duplicity to the juvenile justice system and the matriarchal tradition of Northwest Indians.

The Freedom Socialist takes great pride in presenting highlights of this illuminating dialogue between two experienced fighters for social justice.


Fraser: Ramona, I'm not going to ask you to "explain" your action here at Cascadia. l am familiar with the background of broken promises by the federal and state authorities and you know that the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women strongly endorse your taking back what is yours.

When your leaders asked for our assistance, we were happy to help organize the support rally in front of President Ford today, and we are doing all we can to furnish you with personnel and supplies. So I'd like to skip the "what in the world are you doing by occupying Cascadia" bit and go on to related issues.

Bennett: Good, good. I'm so tired of trying to talk to media people who only think in terms of how many guns do you have and why did you decide to take such violent action and so on. We're not violent and haven't engaged in any violence, but that's where their minds are.

Fraser: Yes, their reports all start out, "No violence has erupted yet today at Cascadia." A very positive lead. Have you had any chance to read the press accounts of your takeover here or to see the television coverage?

Bennett: I haven't seen anything on television. I have been able to see some of the very early papers.

Fraser: What is your impression of the media coverage? And what needs to be said about the meaning of what you're doing that the press isn't reporting?

Bennett: There are two very important things that are not being adequately explained. One is that we have for the past several years objected to the program that has been called Cascadia Diagnostic Service. We have believed for a long time that this is a real Dark Ages program.

I resent the process the state uses. There is just this one facility servicing the entire state, with the exception of Kitsap County that has its own diagnostic program. And I've had an opportunity to go around this facility when the kids were here and to talk to them. They were from all over the state. I talked to them about what that means, and I already knew what it meant. I'd had an opportunity to seethe Kitsap County program and to compare the two.

The kids in Kitsap will go before the judge, and when the state doesn't know what to do with them, they are put into a diagnostic program right there in their own region. The kids have the continuity of the same case workers, court workers, dependency workers, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents. They're as close to their normal, natural environment as can be provided.

But what I see happening here at Cascadia is a removal, an isolation, a loss of emotional support. The kids who are already in trauma are being further traumatized by that sudden rip, the jolt of losing what little they've got in their home communities. And that hurts.

It really hurts the kids who are already in trouble, that sense of removal.

To me, it's like taking a little wild mouse that lives in the woods, that has its little nest, that gathers food, that does its little things for amusement. You take that little mouse and you put it in an aquarium with a concrete floor and you watch it bounce off the floor and you say, gee, that's a defective mouse! Look how crazy it is, running around hurting itself.

To me, that's what this program is like. It's inhumane.

Fraser: I'm sure you've communicated your objections to the DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services) bureaucrats.

Bennett: Of course. The state has known for a long time that it needed to move to regional programs. They are aware of this. It is their goal, something that they mean to pursue. For at least the last three years, they have been telling me they are aware of the problem and well, hello!

Indian man: Hello! We are from Montana and we've come to help.

Bennett: Gee, it's so good to see you brothers and sisters coming here ...

The state told us that it would take them a year to find alternatives to the use of this facility and you've just seen that within a period of 48 hours they decided that it was in the best interests of their children to get them out of here. Before, they used a lot of stalling tactics.

Fraser: American capitalism seems to hate children in general, and delinquent or dependent kids are lost in our correction systems. It's barbaric.

Bennett: The only reason the children were here was because the judges just didn't know what to do with them, just don't know if they're stable enough to go into a foster home or a group situation. But this is no place to prove stability. This is not a natural situation. There's no way of observing these kids and getting any kind of a feeling of what their behavior is in a more natural situation. How would you react if you were jerked two hundred miles away from your friends and family and put in with a whole bunch of strangers in a concrete isolation center?

Fraser: I know I wouldn't react favorably. I've been in jail enough to know my reaction to concrete isolation, and my disposition in jail is not exactly normal.

Bennett: I'm certain I would not react favorably.

Now, the other main problem with the press is that we stated our purposes and our needs over and over, but I don't think any of the regular press understands how critical our social needs really are. We have the highest arrest rate, the highest teenage suicide rates, the highest unemployment rates, the highest infant mortality rates. Our elders have the highest rate of tuberculosis, diabetes, disease.

The press also repeatedly makes the removal of the kids at Cascadia the main issue, when the real issue is the property question and the illegal action of the state in denying us our property. The issue is that the state knows they have been operating here on stolen property for seventeen years and they haven't done a damn thing about it.

All the state is willing to do is stall us. They did break a promise to us. The promise was that no matter what happened, they would be co-seeking relief, seeking the 1.7 million dollars (demanded by the state) jointly with us. Milt Burdman himself (Director of State Department of Social and Health Services) made a commitment that he would be going back to Washington, D.C. with me this week to jointly secure those dollars. He says now that he never meant to imply that he was going; he was only going if we moved out of this building and that this was an agreement.

I told him we've had treaties before, we know how good they are. The deed and the lease — THAT was our agreement.

Fraser: The state claims it won't transfer ownership to you until it is reimbursed almost 2 million dollars. Why do you consider it your responsibility to help raise that money from the feds?

Bennett: It's not my responsibility. But I am a foster parent myself and most of our Indian people here have been involved with foster homes or have been in institutions or are foster parents themselves. We are directly involved in the juvenile justice system. 25 to 35% of our children are adopted; in foster homes, in institutions, or incarcerated. So we are real, real sensitive to the whole juvenile justice system and its processes, and we want good facilities for the kids.

Also, the whites mess up with their own kids, the future citizens of their nation, and we have to live with that result, you and I both. I give a damn about it. I care enough about it that I do think raising the money is worth the investment of time on my part.

Fraser: The state is, in theory, legally obligated to create appropriate facilities for diagnosing disturbed or delinquent children. Don't you think they will have to construct substitute facilities whether or not they are reimbursed by the federal government?

Bennett: The citizens of this state have tolerated the existence of this Cascadia program for two decades. The people have known that this was a juvenile storage unit, a warehouse for kids the system doesn't know what to do with. The Legislature has known it. We've talked to them.

And I'll tell you something else that you may be interested in knowing. Doc Adams, who is a sensitive man, the head of the House DSHS Committee, said it's one of his dreams to move into a modern and protective system for juveniles. But the head of the Senate DSHS Committee looked at me blankly when I told him about our needs, our goals, our problems. The man was completely insensitive to the subjects of poverty, dependency, aging, rehabilitation, etc.

I know now why State Senator Day refused to be sensitive. The man is sick. He's a sick, lecherous man. And he is in a position to control what happens to our little babies, our preschool children, our young children who are lost and separated from their families, our young public assistance mothers, our old people.

State Senator Day is a man who is in a critical position to help people in this state, and he is running around propositioning teenagers. He is a sick, lecherous creep. If the citizens of this state will put up with a piece of shit like that man, then they're probably not going to move on behalf of their children.

Fraser: It figures. Day was one of our main opponents in the fight for legal abortions in Washington State. I understand he has a strong Catholic constituency.

Bennett: He ought to be removed. He ought to be institutionalized.

Fraser: Preferably in one of those horrible cells downstairs that the kids were condemned to! But suppose the feds say that they cannot or will not reimburse the state for Cascadia?

Bennett: If the state addresses themselves to these issues, jointly with us, there should be no problem. We've already spent many weeks and several trips to D.C. laying the groundwork.

Fraser: What if the state does not cooperate?

Bennett: I don't know. I hope the state will be controlled by the citizens, although in many ways it isn't. I think there will be people delegated to make this decision who are going to work on behalf of the best interests of everybody.

Fraser: I'm confused. You say you're going to stay here until the deed is transferred over to you—

Bennett: We're going to stay here PERIOD.

Fraser: Even if the feds refuse to reimburse the state?

Bennett: Yes.

Fraser: Even if the state doesn't get its money back from any source?

Bennett: Yes.

Fraser: So you're not making the existence of your new medical center contingent on the state getting its blood money?

Bennett: No! We just meant to help them, all along. The Puyallups help them that help themselves, but the state has got to be involved in the creation of their own services.

Fraser: You know, Ramona, there's an old socialist tradition, a revolutionary practice, relating to this issue. It's called nationalization without compensation, a policy for taking back lands and property from the capitalists or government who stole them without paying them one red cent, so to speak. That's what Mexico did with the oil fields, what happened in Cuba and in—

Bennett: Sure-but this is a federal faux pas to begin with! HEW played a major role in this. The Bureau of Indian Affairs should have asserted its responsibilities. It's been one hell of an inconvenience to us, and it's now an inconvenience to the state, too. The feds have got to assume some responsibility.

Fraser: We both know what Governor Evans and DSHS are like-what does Roberto Maestas (Director of Centro de la Raza) call him? Dirty Dan?

Bennett: Dirty Dan Evans.

Fraser: So even if the state got the money, they could still allocate it to something completely different than an adequate juvenile facility. Those jokers could appropriate the money to highways!

Bennett: Yes, they could. But it's up to us as parents and citizens to remain vigilant, to stay on them ... we've got a cute staff here, don't we?

Fraser: They're fantastic. Great. Are any of the kids still here?

Bennett: Yes, there is one boy that we liberated-he's a Puyallup.

Fraser: That's marvelous, to be freed by your own people.

Bennett: He's scheduled to go to Detox (alcohol detoxification) on Thursday and we'll just make sure he gets there.

Fraser: As a socialist feminist, I am excited about the high quality and participation of Puyallup women in tribal affairs, about the strong and skillful leadership of the women. How do you see the relationship of feminism with the Native American struggle?

Bennett: I have quite a few feelings on that subject. I don't believe any women can be totally liberated until their society is liberated, until their families are liberated, and we have no liberated citizens so long as my people are suffering and dying. This is my condition. We are moving for the liberation of our whole community. We are moving for economic and social liberation.

We have four women on a tribal council of five, and the reason I see for our success is that we are a non-drinking council, and we also have a very high level of awareness of the needs of our people. So our tribe is advancing more rapidly than other tribes.

Fraser: Women generally are more aware than men of social needs because we're closer to them. And your women are very strong to be able to resist alcohol and alcoholism. But how do you explain the fact that so many women actually came to constitute the tribal council leadership?

Bennett: Well, our societies were always matriarchal and women were always important. Our men built the longhouses and the canoes, did the fishing, and controlled many of the social aspects of our society. But the women were involved with medicine, justice, education, decisions. Now, the male occupations have been removed from our community and the men are deprived of their traditional work. The women have been able to retain many of their roles, so the women have stayed strong. It used to be that all of our people were strong, but the women had an advantage. The women have managed to remain strong.

Fraser: And your goal is to rebuild total strength?

Bennett: Yes. In areas where the men had opportunity to work side by side, they have remained strong. But where the men have been knocked down and the women continue to be strong, we give a helping hand to the men. Our ex-offender program, for instance, is damned important to us, because of the high rate of unemployment and incarceration of our people. We want those men to learn from us what a community is and what mutual help is because we'll be looking to them for leadership in the future. We need them, because when they're side by side with us, working as our partners, we can be liberated to do some neat things. Like see our children, for instance.

I have half a dozen children and a 94-year-old man, they are my family. And if we get some more men working with us, giving us a hand, I could even do things with my family.

They need me, too. I have three children of my own and three foster children. I would add for any DSHS employees who might read this article that my foster children aren't here!

Fraser: The state can be vicious about foster children.

Bennett: Yes. I have them and I love them and I don't want to lose them. They're not here.

Fraser: You're the sole support of your family?

Bennett: Yes.

Fraser: And you work full-time for the Puyallup Tribe?

Bennett: Yes, that's my work.

Fraser: Have you encountered any resistance or antagonism from the men to the female leadership?

Bennett: No, not in the Northwest. The men are supportive to us and they know we are working to build them into leaders alongside us.

Fraser: Are the women supportive also?

Bennett: Oh, yes!

Fraser: You have it a lot easier than Black women, who are still being put down hard by Black males who equate liberation with freedom — for the Black Man! You remember Stokely Carmichael's infamous quote, "The proper position of women in the movement is prone?"

Bennett: Our men are with us. Let me ask Indian man what he thinks. Do you resent the big-mouthed little women from Puyallup who run around here?

Indian man: No! Why should I?

Bennett: She's asking if the men resent the positions that women assume here.

Indian man (forcefully): No way. It's a big improvement. Indian men know that we need real strong women's leadership. That's important to the whole family unit; everybody is in this together.

Bennett: When the women and the men are both working, then you've got twice as many people working on our issues, and you get it done four times as fast.

Fraser: All poor people and radicals need all the leaders we can get.

Bennett: Yes, we do. And another thing. In the Indian community, there really aren't any 'leaders' in the usual sense. There have never been any Indian followers. If we had had a pattern of following, we'd have all gotten bunched up in one place at one time and there wouldn't be any survivors. The Indian people really do think for themselves. There's no blind following. Everybody in this place is doing their own thinking. We ask each other for help, but all these people are on their own, doing their own thinking.

Fraser: It's amazing how bosses and politicians always complain about agitators and ascribe all protests to sinister figures who apparently hypnotize people into action, against their will and better judgment. It's always assumed that the ranks have no militancy or intelligence of their own.

Bennett: That's right. A lot of people don't understand that. They believe that we really do have followers and leaders. But we're not into that at all.

Fraser: You're not into blind or passive followership. But you do have leaders — you are the public spokesperson and organizer.

Bennett: Right, right.

Fraser: I know you need money, food and supplies.

Bennett: Yes, yes.

Fraser: What kind of food? I know what kind of money.

Bennett: Canned, in sealed containers. The reason I'm stressing canned things is because we have a lot of crazies in this community who could be poisoning food and sending it in. We're not the most popular segment of the population, you know. People will be leaving food at the gate for us and not coming in themselves, so we don't know them, and someone could whip us up a batch of strychnine cookies or any damn thing. If we receive any fresh or homemade food directly from people we don't know, we won't eat it.

I'm also seeing an awful lot of soda pop and I'd like to see some fruit juice coming in. The Cowlitz tribe brought us toothbrushes yesterday. A lot of people have just come in without bringing an extra pair of socks or underwear or deodorant, razors, shaving cream, things like that. People outside need to understand that supplies can be brought in to us.

The Muckleshoots are just coming over and the Cowlitz tribe has been here all day. There are Indian people here from a number of tribes. A lot of people think we're just barricaded in here, so we are letting them know that our friends are going in and out of here. It's OUR place.

Fraser: You are requesting supporters to come and join you?

Bennett: Yes, whoever is authorized — and recommended by our people. We especially need people who can identify any finks or plants who may have slipped in. FBI types.

Fraser: Ramona, I've seen many social programs ruined when the recipients of the funds became cautious and conservative, anxious to hang on to the grants. Now your tribe has received a lot of federal dollars for services and programs. Could your funds be jeopardized because of your occupation of the building? And does this worry you?

Bennett: Not at all. The money is to serve our community and that's what we are doing. We'll not be bought off or bribed to become goodie-goodies. Anyway, they owe us the money — they robbed us of it. If we stay on their asses, we'll keep getting the money. And we'll keep this land and this building, too.

It's all ours, and you fight for what's yours.