What’s next for Seattle’s historically contested Discovery Park?

SEEN FROM ABOVE, the land mass we now call Discovery Park looks like the head of a crested bird — a cardinal, maybe, or a Steller’s jay.

If you zoom out and look southwest, toward downtown, you can see the silhouette of an entire, well-fed bird perched above Elliott Bay. The waterways to its north (the Fremont Cut, the Ship Canal) outline its back. Magnolia is its full belly, swelling out into the saltwater. The two long cruise-ship docks in Smith Cove look like little legs, and its tail feathers end somewhere around King Street Station in the Chinatown International District.

But for the purposes of this story, let’s stick with the bird’s head — which has seen some changes.

For thousands of years, its beak — thrust way into Puget Sound, like it’s about to peck Bainbridge Island — was a settlement with an excellent view of who or what might be coming from the north or south. That beak is now a massive wastewater/stormwater treatment plant.

Around 1900, most of the bird’s head was logged for an Army base where Italian and German prisoners of war would be kept during World War II. (One of the Italians was found hanged after a troop riot.) When the military announced it was leaving in the late 1960s, people fought over what to do with the land. Some wanted it all for a park, while Native activists tried to secure acreage for a cultural and social-services center. When city and federal officials rebuffed their request, they staged protests, with people climbing the fort’s fences and steep bluffs, catching national attention. Eventually, they succeeded in acquiring around 20 acres and created Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.

Today the land we call Discovery Park is a generally placid spread of forests and meadows where people stroll and picnic, but the fighting continues. The federal government still owns a roughly 30-acre chunk of property — a large, paved-over slab with decrepit buildings surrounded by a chain-link fence — and the city of Seattle would like to use it for low-income housing and open space.

Some residents of Magnolia, that well-fed belly of the bird, loathe the idea and have been waging legal warfare against the city (and, occasionally, the Army) since 2008. The chain link remains.

But for almost 5,000 years — and probably longer — human beings who need a place to live have persistently returned to that land. They’ll probably do it again.

Early years

SOMETIME AFTER THE last Ice Age, but well before the Trojan War, people settled on that bird’s beak, with its strategically significant view up and down what we now call Puget Sound.

We know this, in part, because in 1992, while local government was upgrading and expanding the wastewater treatment plant (originally built in 1966), a geologist named Brian Atwater noticed a backhoe turning up a layer of crushed mussel shells. Construction stopped; more tender digging began.

Archaeologists uncovered a five-act history of human habitation, including periods of year-round settlement (starting roughly 4,300 years before the present, or 2300 B.C.) followed by seasonal use for salmon fishing and clam drying (until about 1750 A.D.). Exactly who set up housekeeping there in the earliest days isn’t 100% clear, says historian David Buerge, author of “Chief Seattle and the Town that Took His Name.” But in those early millennia, ancestral Duwamish, Muckleshoot and Suquamish people all lived on the eastern shore of Puget Sound.

Around 900 A.D., a powerful earthquake dropped the beak several feet, drastically shrinking the site — but archaeologists found artifacts just below and above the layer of tsunami sand. The landscape changed dramatically, but people came right back.

The research turned up evidence of foods eaten at various times in the site’s history (fish, elk, deer, plants, seals) and materials from far away: obsidian (eastern Oregon), petrified wood (the Columbia River basin) and types of jewelry (certain designs on bracelet fragments, lower-lip labrets) normally associated with people living 1,000 miles north, near what is now the Canada-Alaska border.

Depending on which linguist or ethnographer you consult, the Lushootseed name for that point is spelled pka’dzultshu or paq̓ácałču, meaning something like “thrust far out.” (Lushootseed does not use capital letters.) In his 2007 book “Native Seattle,” historian Coll Thrush reports that paq̓ácałču (which, he writes, is approximately pronounced paq-AHTS-athl-choo) describes “the act of pushing or thrusting one’s way through brush, or the opening of leaf buds — apt similes for the way the point emerges from the thickly wooded bluffs that overhang it.”

In 1841, U.S. Naval officer Charles Wilkes named that bird’s beak West Point. In 1865, the freshly minted municipality of Seattle passed an ordinance (the infamous Ordinance No. 5) banning Indigenous people from living in town — unless a non-Native employed them, in which case they had to live with or next to their boss.

Banished from Seattle, Native people lived around its perimeter, including Herring’s House (not actually a house, but a centuries-old Duwamish neighborhood named for the masses of fish that spawned there, located very close to today’s cargo cranes in the mouth of the Duwamish River) and the point called paq̓ácałču.

Two years later, in 1867, the municipal government dissolved, then reincorporated. It did not re-enact Ordinance No. 5. Needless to say, discrimination lingered.

On March 7, 1893, a Seattle Times reporter went to a small island off Pioneer Square (since filled in) to find out why 10 canoes full of Native people and their household belongings suddenly had shown up. White settlers, they said, had set fire to Herring’s House, destroying eight buildings. They were now homeless.

Some moved up the Duwamish River, and others went to reservations. A few relocated to paq̓ácałču — but it was about to have new occupants.

Army years

That May, just two months after the arson at Herring’s House, the stock market crashed, starting the Panic of 1893.

Soon, the U.S. economy was in a bad way, and so was Seattle’s: bankruptcies, mass layoffs, land values falling by 80%. An Army base seemed like a good way to rekindle the local economy and provide investment-friendly stability. The military, with its recent decision to build a shipyard in Port Orchard, had its own reasons for wanting a stronger presence on Puget Sound.

Members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce pooled their land and cash, acquiring around 700 acres of the bird’s head, and donated them to the federal government. Fort Lawton was dedicated in 1900, named after Maj. Gen. Henry Lawton, who’d fought in the Union Army and famously commanded the cavalry troop that “captured” the Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo. That name would boomerang on the major-general. Lawton fought his final battle in the Philippine-American War, shot through the lungs by a sharpshooter under the command of Gen. Licerio Gerónimo.

Fort Lawton was, in many ways, a sleepy place — though it occasionally became a lightning rod for Seattle’s racial unease.

In 1909, 900 Black servicemen of the 25th Infantry Regiment — also known as Buffalo Soldiers — were stationed there after serving two years in the Philippines. At the time, they constituted over a third of the city’s Black population. A 1909 Seattle Times article reported some residents objecting to their presence, but added: “We have no doubt that the people of Seattle will see to it that there is no discord between these black troops at the fort and the white people of the city. Their presence is only another instance of the cosmopolitan character of our population.”

That was naive.

By the next year, tensions were high and, after a white woman reported fending off an aggressive Black soldier, white neighbors held an angry meeting and formed a vigilante committee. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer decried “repeated outrages” by “the unworthies, the lawless prowlers who have terrorized and outraged the people of Interbay,” concluding, “The colored troops must go.”

Before the night of the alleged assault was over, officers of the 25th Infantry had picked out Pvt. Nathaniel Bledser — who had been late returning to his post that evening — as the suspect. The case had inconsistencies (the reported assailant was tall and thin; Bledser was stout, with a mustache nobody had mentioned), and the process was hasty. He was tried in King County Superior Court and found guilty after a 10-minute deliberation by an all-white jury, then sentenced to four to 10 years. The 25th Infantry stayed until 1913, when it was stationed in Hawaii and replaced with a white unit.

Fort Lawton became a busy transit point during World War II (an estimated 1.1 million soldiers passed through) and housed prisoners of war: 1,150 German POWs and an Italian Service Unit (ISU) of 206 men.

ISUs were a strange wartime wrinkle. After Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943 and declared war on Nazi Germany, some Italian POWs (those identified as reluctant conscripts, not true-believer fascists) started working for the U.S. government. The ISU men at Fort Lawton served as laborers on the base but were able to visit Seattle, play soccer in a local league and move freely in spaces — on the base and off — Black soldiers couldn’t.

“It was racial, real racial,” Samuel Snow, a Black soldier stationed at Fort Lewis, told The Seattle Times decades later. “I never slept with white solders, or ate in a white mess hall.” One night in 1944, as Snow’s unit prepared to ship out to the Pacific, some Black soldiers and Italian POWs got into a fight. It became a riot. A reported 26 Italians were hospitalized, and one was found dead, hanged by a tent cord slung over a wire on an obstacle course.

Forty-three Black soldiers were collectively tried in what the Army later found was a heavily flawed process: Evidence was suppressed, witnesses repeatedly lied under oath and the two defense attorneys had only 10 days to prepare. In the end, 28 soldiers were convicted, most for riot and two for manslaughter. Snow spent a year in prison; others spent 25.

Sixty-three years later, in 2007, the military overturned the convictions as “fundamentally unfair,” though only two soldiers were still alive. The following year, the Army held a ceremony on what used to be Fort Lawton (by then Discovery Park) to issue a formal apology and honorable discharges. Snow, who lived in Florida, had come to Seattle for the event — but, the day before the ceremony, was admitted to Virginia Mason Hospital with an irregular heartbeat.

Thirteen hours after the U.S. Army issued its apology, Snow died.

Deactivation and Daybreak Star

By the mid-1960s, Fort Lawton had mostly outlived its usefulness, having wound down its duties as a processing point for inbound and outbound soldiers. It remained part of the Nike anti-aircraft missile defense system — a radar and control center — but the Army didn’t need several hundred acres for that. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announced that, by 1970, 85% of the land would become surplus.

The city of Seattle wanted that acreage for a park and got the gears turning: The city council passed a pro-park resolution, a committee of park enthusiasts convened (including a delegation from Magnolia) and voters approved a $3 million Fort Lawton Park levy.

Indigenous organizers and activists also saw use for the land. Seattle’s Urban Native population had grown sixfold between 1950 and 1970 — partly because the federal government had been pushing an aggressively assimilationist policy of tribal “termination,” trying to move Indigenous people off reservations and into cities. Congress had dissolved more than 100 tribes and bands while the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies facilitated sell-offs of reservation land and pledged to help with jobs and housing if Native people moved to urban areas.

“They offered what I’d consider a token amount of assistance,” says Mike Tulee (Yakama), executive director of United Indians of All Tribes, which is housed at Daybreak Star. At the time, health care for Urban Natives was a three-day-a-week clinic staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses. Job assistance was never much more ambitious than finding janitorial and housekeeping gigs. Volunteer groups such as the American Indian Women’s Service League formed to cover stopgap needs — emergency food and clothing, scrounging up scholarship opportunities for Native students — and to help give newly dislocated people a sense of community to soften the culture shock of coming from the reservation to the white-dominated city.

But those all-volunteer networks were overtaxed. Their community required resources and dedicated space — civic leaders like Pearl Warren (Makah) had been saying so for years. The federal government declaring a huge chunk of land “surplus” seemed like a logical opportunity. Organizers Bernie Whitebear (Colville Confederated Tribes, Sinixt Band) and Ramona Bennett (Puyallup) drafted a detailed land-use plan (including housing, health care, job training and early-childhood education) and approached the city, as well as U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

“They just blew us off,” Bennett says. So they decided to take direct action.

In March 1970, activists staged a series of protests — climbing the fences and bluffs of Fort Lawton, then establishing a camp at its front gate — which made national headlines and forced Seattle to the negotiating table. The next year, Whitebear, Sen. Jackson and Mayor Wes Uhlman announced the deal: a 99-year lease of around 20 acres for the nonprofit United Indians of All Tribes, plus $600,000 for the American Indian Women’s Service League to create a social-services center.

Those 20 acres became Daybreak Star, which now includes a preschool, an art gallery and a cultural center, hosting events like the Seattle Seafair Indian Days Powwow.

The city got around 400 acres for Discovery Park.

As a former University of Washington instructor, Tulee would like to see United Indians expand its education mission: perhaps a GED (high-school equivalency) program or even a college. Several years ago, the nonprofit partnered with Catholic Housing Services to build affordable apartments — they plan to emphasize housing and support for Native elders exiting homelessness — but that has been stalled, devolving into another fight over who gets to be on that land.

After its big release of acreage around 1970, the federal government has continued to declare smaller parcels surplus. In 2005, the Army said it would relinquish another 30-acre chunk (toward the back of the bird’s head, southwest of the Ballard Locks). Seattle proposed developing it — along with United Indians, Catholic Housing Services and other groups — for affordable houses and apartments, plus open park space.

But some Magnolia residents, led by neighborhood activist Elizabeth Campbell, have spent more than a decade filing lawsuits and throwing up legal roadblocks. The saga has been bureaucratic and Byzantine, with notes of tragicomedy — in 2018, an environmental-impact hearing on this low-income housing project was delayed to accommodate Campbell’s European travel plans.

Last year, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed Campbell’s latest legal challenge. The next step, barring another lawsuit, is for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to finish reviewing the city’s plan.

While the proposed housing isn’t exclusively for Native people, it’s firmly in the continuum of this ongoing question about who’s allowed to live where.

“A lot of Natives feel like there’s a challenge in the city, not so much organized against us as a race, but for physical space,” Tulee says. “There’s a segment of society that says: ‘We have this land outright. We don’t want those people here; they don’t belong here.’ Some people don’t quite get a diverse view — or a critical view — of what has happened here.”

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