Puyallup evicts State from tribal property
Sam Deaderick
volume:  
volume 2
issue 2
Fall 1976
imagestuff
A small but daring group of Pacific Northwest Indians, the Puyallups, electrified the nation on the evening of October 23 when the courageous tribe suddenly and efficiently took control of Cascadia Juvenile Reception and Diagnostic Center — beautiful land and buildings on the Puyallup River that once were theirs but had been lost for years to the thieving and deceitful federal and State governments.

For seven eventful days after the stunning takeover, the entire Northwest held its breath as the Puyallups coolly consolidated their occupation of the· premises. Cascadia Center, once the Cushman Indian Hospital, is just outside the city of Tacoma in Pierce County, Washington, thirty miles from Seattle. And for a solid week it hosted hundreds of Indians and their supporters, nervous State and federal bureaucrats forced into negotiations, and an excited press corps.

The surprise uprising resulted in a substantial victory for the Puyallups. An official agreement between the tribe, the State and the federal government was finally hammered out at the eleventh hour, virtually guaranteeing the return of Cascadia to the trusteeship of the United States for use by the Puyallup Tribe as a medical and social welfare center for its people.

This reporter joined the tribal forces on Sunday, the day after the successful takeover, and I remained with them until the Agreement was signed and everybody departed from Cascadia.

What follows is the actual, almost totally eyewitness, account of one heroic week in October when local Native Americans, bitter over years of neglect of their claim for reversion of Cascadia to tribal control, startled the State of Washington by taking the offensive against it and pressuring both State and federal governments into far-reaching concessions.

The intrepid Puyallups have added yet another historic chapter to the saga of the long and agonizing war of survival by Indians against the American ruling class, and I am proud and grateful that I was permitted to share this stirring experience with them.

Lenore Norrgard, my FSP comrade and a member of Radical Women, also joined the occupation. Many of the Indians there knew her from her long involvement with Native American struggles through the Evergreen State College, where she is a student and activist. Her excellent photographs, taken during her breaks from the work we were all engaged in, are featured throughout the pages of this issue of the Freedom Socialist.

On Saturday evening, October 23, about 200 members and guests of the Puyallup Tribe were at the Cascadia detention facility celebrating the opening of a new Indian clinic on the grounds.

The Puyallups vividly recalled the time when the sprawling institution was the Cushman Indian Hospital, serving Native Americans from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. The Puyallups had relinquished the land to the federal government for $228,000 in return for a promise that the site would be used to supply desperately needed medical care for Indians. But the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) illegally closed the hospital in 1959 and then transferred ownership to the State in 1961.

The Puyallups had been tricked out of their land and their own hospital. And now, ironically, they were "celebrating" the State's miserly concession of an extremely limited medical service on the very site once dedicated completely to Indian health care.

But the Puyallups had plans for a greater celebration later that evening. At 6:15 p.m., after 150 juvenile prisoners incarcerated in detention units finished dinner, a band of 50 Indians descended from their 5th floor open house and casually swarmed through the huge main building. Accompanied by their tribal police, who are always uniformed and armed while on duty, they firmly served a previously prepared eviction notion. The assistant shift officer, seized the switchboard and assumed control of the building.

In a calm but decisive act of revolutionary transformation of property relations, they completed the expropriation by announcing that the entire institution was, in the words of Resolution #76-10-23 of the Puyallup Tribal Council, "in the possession Of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians as its sovereign and rightful owners."

"We've been involved in the legislative process for the past several years and have now decided to act," said Ramona Bennett, tribal chairwoman. "The hospital is ours and we have it. We are the Puyallup-nation."

Anatomy of an Expropriation

For the next week, the Indians administered the facility. Puyallups and supporters from other tribes ran the huge kitchen, serving three meals a day to as many as 200 people.

Lenore and I spent a great deal of time working in this giant-sized institutional kitchen. Very few of us had ever cooked, served, or cleaned on such a massive scale, but necessity quickly taught us how. Nobody went hungry. One night we cooked a delicious Indian dinner of fresh salmon brought in by Indian fishermen and broiled with buttered onions, corn-on-the-cob and fried bread. From the appetites of the hungry diners, it was more than obvious that occupying forces, like armies, march on their stomachs.

A complex security system was maintained, including appropriated State autos utilized as mobile units. Sentries were posted at the entry gate, on the rooftops and throughout the site, maintaining communications via a walkie-talkie radio network. Lenore and I were also able to work within the security system, watching the entrances to the facility from the roof and from the ground.

One day we were assigned to check people in and out of the clinic, which was still in operation. I had the opportunity to discuss the occupation with two white construction workers entering the clinic to talk to the director. After I explained why I had to take their names, they asked if the Indians had occupied the entire 30 acres. When I said, "They sure have!" they responded, "Good for them. It's about time!"

Childcare was organized, the switchboard operated, supplies were purchased and distributed, floors were mopped, and friendly visitors, after clearance from the gate patrol, were welcomed.

A skeleton crew from the previous Cascadia staff was invited inside to evacuate the juvenile residents, and State authorities agreed to transfer the inmates. The State has consistently maintained that it would take up to two years to arrange new facilities for the juveniles, yet all the young people were evacuated within 48 hours of the dramatic takeover. As the kids left, many of them shoved upraised fists out of the bus windows, shouting "Indian Power!" and "Where have you been so long?"

Cascadia is a notorious prison warehouse for delinquent youth. (Editor's Note: For more on this subject, see Clara Fraser's interview of Ramona Bennett on page 9).

During the week-long occupation, supplies and money were continually donated by supporters on the outside. Reporters and photographers, restricted to the lobby, milled about, awaiting a break in the story. The lobby lounge boasts an overpowering mural of an Indian woman curing skins at her riverside campground — a fitting backdrop for the labor expended during the occupation. Grim-faced government negotiators, trying to look folksy, scurried in and out, strange figures against the rural beauty of the mural. Meanwhile, phone calls and telegrams of support and enthusiasm poured in from all over the country.

Throughout the day the building echoed with the triumphant high-pitched chant of the AIM (American Indian Movement) anthem resounding against the throbbing beat of a large drum decorated with the symbol of the Trail of Self-Determination.

People worked tirelessly, and behind the apparent chaos an atmosphere of order, dignity and humor prevailed. The mood was one of watchful high spirits. Federal marshals and troops with overkill fire power could arrive at any moment and everyone knew it, yet the entire occupation force was quietly prepared to stay through to the end.

By the third day of the occupation, a fifty-foot banner created by Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women members draped the outside upper comer of the massive building. Visible for a mile down the freeway which passes Cascadia, the banner blazed out in scarlet letters on a brilliant yellow background the new name of the center — Chief Leschi Indian Medical Building. The first letters of each word were emphasized to reveal the acronym: CLIMB!

Backdrop: Another Trail of Tears

The decision to occupy Cascadia was not made lightly. The Puyallups had been requesting the return of the facility ever since HEW declared it "surplus to Indian health needs" and simply handed it over to the State behind the backs of the tribal owners. The State promptly put the land to use for a freeway and a juvenile prison. The history of the Puyallup struggle for decent health care, supposedly guaranteed them by the federal government, is long, bitter and still unresolved.

In 1871, a Puyallup Elder who occupied the acreage now known as Cascadia, agreed to the use of the 38 acres of tribal land for a trade school for Indians, and such a school operated from 1871 until 1920. Medical treatment for the students was handled by the students themselves, assisted by a travelling physician. In 1878, a resident doctor was installed and care was extended to all Northwest Indians. In 1929, a tuberculosis sanitarium, Cushman Hospital, began operation on the premises. TB, an infection transmitted to the Indians by whites, had become a major medical problem for the native population.

It soon became clear that Cushman Hospital was hopelessly inadequate to deal with the growing problem of TB. The Puyallups entered into negotiations with the U.S., hoping to sell the land to the government, which would hold it in trust for the Puyallups for the express purpose of constructing an Indian Hospital that would furnish both expert health care and employment for Northwest Indians.

Congress appropriated the purchase price of $282,525 in 1939, and construction of the present facilities was completed in 1941. The Cushman Indian Hospital was born, housing both inpatients and a medical and dental clinic for Indian outpatients.

Suddenly, in 1954, HEW began phasing out the Indian health facilities, and the State of Washington was unexpectedly enriched by the gift of a multi-million dollar property. This callous bureaucratic robbery, added to centuries of broken treaties, land theft and genocide, provoked an immediate multi-tribal protest. For the past five years, the Puyallups have tried to negotiate through the maze of interlocking bureaucracies — the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the State, HEW, Congress, the Department of the Interior, the executive branch, etc . — in a concerted effort to reclaim their property legally.

The primary roadblock was the State's refusal to budge unless it was "reimbursed" $1.719 million for its "capital investment" in equipment, a demand which the federal government refused.

Negotiations threatened to drag on for decades more when the tribe simply got fed up, cried "Enough!" and proceeded to take back, in their own way, what was theirs all the time.

And one extremely meaningful byproduct of the takeover was the public attention focused on the inhuman conditions faced by the imprisoned children of Cascadia.

From Indian Health to Child Abuse

The State of Washington has operated Cascadia as a juvenile jail for over fifteen years, contradicting the highsounding name of the institution — Cascadia Reception and Diagnostic Center. Youngsters aged 13 to 18 who are delinquent in any way, from running away to murder, are placed here to be "observed." The staff watches them and makes a judgment on their fate, based on the child's progress and stability under prison conditions. Some of the kids are returned to their homes, others assigned to foster parents, some shipped to other institutions, and some simply detained indefinitely. When the Puyallups occupied the buildings, they freed three children from medieval isolation cells in the basement — small, unheated, windowless rooms buzzing with mosquitos and furnished only with an open toilet and a blanket thrown on a piece of mattress — like material covering the bare metal bedframe. One adolescent had sat handcuffed in one of these dungeons for three days when the Indians released him.

A Fateful Decision by Women

No story of the Cascadia takeover can be authentic unless it pinpoints the leadership role of the remarkable women in the Puyallup Tribe, exciting testimony to its matriarchal tradition.

The Tribal Council has been led for years by its dynamic chairwoman, Ramona Bennett. Bennett was in the forefront of the occupation and subsequent negotiations. She was consistently calm and articulate, eloquently expressing the determination of a desperate people to achieve justice and self-determination. Her clear and incisive statements, frequently tinged with sarcasm and always packing an emotional wallop, instantly captured the respect and attention of the media and the support of a large segment of the public.

Never during the occupation did Bennett play the role of aloof executive issuing decrees from above. She was constantly with her people, soliciting their ideas and judgments, participating in many of the routine tasks, socializing with the children and conducting herself as an intrinsic part of the tribe. She was accessible, responsive and unpretentious.

Women comprise the leadership of the Puyallup Tribal Council and these women, along with the Tribal Elders, are held in the highest esteem by the entire tribe and by Indian supporters from other tribes.

It was essentially women who organized and led the takeover, coordinated the occupation activities, appeared before the media, conducted the government negotiations, and mobilized outside support and assistance.

Indian men viewed the women with respect, generally working together with the women on terms of mutual consideration, their joint concern focusing on the welfare of the tribe as a total entity.

A Groundswell of Support

The liberation of Cascadia-Cushman elicited an immediate rallying of support. Indians from tribes all over the country came to Tacoma to join the insurrection — Duwamish, Steilacoom, Blackfoot, Sioux, Clallam, Cowlitz, Cheyenne, Ojibway, Colville, Chippewa, and Muckleshoot. Chicanos, Blacks and whites from neighboring cities journeyed to Pierce County to express support or join in the work and the risks. Delegates from militant Seattle-based organizations were prominent in the ranks of sympathizers, representing such groups as El Centro de la Raza, the Native American Solidarity Committee, Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women.

Outside supporters responded quickly to the situation and secured funds, food, supplies and favorable publicity for the takeover. Over 700 telegrams in support of the Puyallups were sent to government officials as a result of this public defense activity.

Provisions were collected by many individuals and groups, including The Little Bread Company, CC Grains, Community Produce, Seattle Counseling Service for Sexual Minorities and many more.

Seattle adherents held a press conference to demand the return of Cushman-Cascadia to the Puyallups. Speakers called on government officials to act in a sensitive and restrained manner and avoid unleashing of violence against the Indians. Over 35 individuals and organizations endorsed the statement, including the National Lawyers Guild, United Farmworkers of America, United Workers Union-Independent, American Friends Service Committee, Council of Churches of Greater Seattle, La Raza Law Forum, Radical Arab-Jewish Alliance, Union of Sexual Minorities, Action Childcare Coalition, Freedom Socialist Party, Radical Women, Rescate Press, Seize the Time for Oppressed People, El Centro de la Raza, International Socialists and Native American Solidarity Committee.

By exposing the imminent threat of Wounded Knee-style massacre by government troops, the community support groups along with a remarkably sympathetic Seattle press corps were instrumental in restraining the trigger-happy, hawk mentality of the Governor and related officials, and bolstering the Puyallups' bargaining power with the government.

Very little opposition to the takeover was evident to those of us inside the facility. There were reports of shots fired on the building a few times during the week, and once there was a run-in with an irate, drunken white man.

Two of the Indian security people and I went over to check on a car sitting near the back gate. When we approached it, the man inside immediately began shouting and threatening, screaming "You goddamn Indians! You all ought to be shot!" His wife had just returned from an appointment at the health clinic on the Cascadia grounds and tried frantically to shut him up. My Indian companions, with dignity and restraint, explained to him why they had to check out all the cars in the area. He spun out of the lot, cursing and swerving as he sped off.

Negotiations, Government Style

The moment Cascadia's "normal" operations were disrupted by the Indian occupation, the State got down to serious negotiations. Discussions with the Director of the State's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) began the day after the seizure of the facility and continued steadily until agreement was reached.

At one point in the negotiations, after DSHS Director Milton Burdman reneged on a tentative agreement, Ramona Bennett refused to negotiate privately and transferred the talks to the main floor lounge, where tribal members, supporters and the press could witness the State's hypocrisy and trickery. While the State negotiators spoke in deliberately low voices, Ramona talked loudly so that everyone could hear what was going on.

During one session, Burdman said that the State of Washington was certainly willing to give the Indians the facility eventually, but he wouldn't "give it up with a gun." Said Bennett, "He's trying to get the federal marshals in on us but he's talking about no guns!" Everybody laughed — everybody except Burdman.

The Injunction Cometh

The State went into federal court on Tuesday, October 26 to seek an injunction against the Indian occupation. The judge couldn't decide if the uproar was a federal or State matter, but on Wednesday, Federal Judge Morell Sharp said he would issue a restraining order enforceable by federal marshals that would be effective at 4:00 p.m. the next day.

Judge Sharp called the Puyallups' action "high-handed, foolish and irresponsible."

"I can't conceive of a situation more self-defeating to the Indians' cause than this situation," he opined. He had no comment whatsoever on HEW's illegal gift of Indian land and buildings to Washington State, or the criminal neglect of Indian health care for the past 17 years.

He admitted that a substantial federal question was involved in the ownership dispute, but he righteously refused to consider the matter so long as the Indians occupied the buildings. His opinions clearly demonstrated that the federal court system, the supposed protector of Indian rights against violation by the states, stood firmly with the State against the Puyallups.

Judge Sharp signed the restraining order on Thursday, but extended the deadline to noon Saturday, October 30 to allow time for negotiations with federal representatives flying in from Washington, DC.

The Undersecretary of the Department of the Interior, R. Dennis Ickes, who smiled diplomatically at the news cameras as he was greeted by the drummers at the front door of the facility, took over the negotiations. He pledged to "take appropriate action for the return of the property" to be held in trust by the U.S. government for the Puyallup Tribe.

"Appropriate action," however, actually meant action according to the wishes of the State of Washington. Since the feds had already taken the "action" of stealing the land from the Tribe, and a federal restraining order was hanging over their heads, the Puyallups had little reason to trust the federal government to act in their interests.

Negotiations seemed to drag on endlessly. Minutes before a court-ordered deadline, as everyone was gearing up for marshals to come busting in, news would fly through the buildings that a postponement had been granted. People would sigh with relief and go back to work, while reporters rushed off with their hot stories.

Finally, on Saturday, minutes before the final deadline, agreement was reached. The terms essentially provided that in return for the Puyallups and their supporters leaving the premises, one small building and a parcel of land would immediately revert to U.S. government ownership for tribal use. In addition, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior would review the claim of the State to the facility and, depending on its determination, would "take immediate and appropriate action ... for the return of the (total) property to the trusteeship of the United States for (the) Tribe."

A Qualified Victory

Did the insurgent Indians win this battle? Yes. The outcome was not an unqualified victory, for the Puyallups were forced to leave the premises without a deed to the total property in their hands. But they held (1) a deed for a portion of the facility, and (2) a written assurance that the disputed ownership question would be speedily resolved.

The federal government, of course, is not to be trusted, but the Puyallups raised their struggle with the intertwined government bureaucracies to a new level. They demonstrated a resounding refusal to accept legalistic brushoffs and decisively proved that if they could not get action, they would take action. And the feds know that if total victory doesn't follow from this skirmish, the Puyallup wars will erupt again.

Skillful public relations and negotiating tactics by the Indians avoided reprisals and injuries, and maintained intact all the occupying personnel. The Indians lost nothing and gained much.

After the agreement was signed, Ramona Bennett addressed her troops. "Six to eight acres of this land will be broken away and given to us with no reservations. This will provide land for our schools. The next time we come here, we'll have the title in our hands and won't have to worry about any goddamn marshals blowing up our building."

"The Puyallup Tribe thanks all of you who have been here with us. We know this kind of courage comes from a real understanding of the link between all our needs. We offer you our deepest thanks and appreciation."

A mighty cheer rose from all the people assembled there at Cascadia, and then the low drumbeat began. Everyone moved slowly in a circle around the drummers, voices mingled in the familiar A.I.M. anthem, fists raised in proud victory.

The siege was over.

The saga of the Puyallup invasion of Cascadia has already carved a niche in the annals of revolutionary heroism by the oppressed and outcast. The birth of Chief Leschi Indian Medical Building is an inspiration to all warriors of social justice.

It was thrilling and illuminating for me to be there. As a revolutionary socialist, a Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist, I felt that I had been swept up in a dress rehearsal for revolution, a preview of the coming main event in this country when the capitalist liars and plunderers will finally be overcome and a socialist democracy established in the spirit and tradition of the great Indian nations.

For socialism, after all, is nothing more or less than the "revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient matriarchal clans." Lewis H. Morgan, the great American anthropologist and student of Indian society, wrote this in 1877, and I have just learned this lesson through living with the Puyallups for one incredible week almost one hundred years later.

Yes, the siege is over. But make no mistake — the war goes on.