Janet McCloud at Sapa Dawn. photo Alan Berner

The Center of Everything
Native leader Janet McCloud finds peace in her place, her victories, her family. It has taken years to get there.


From: Seattle Times
July 4, 1999
by Mark N. Trahant



Janet McCloud lives on a country lane in Yelm. a couple miles south of the Nisqually River. The neighborhood, like so many in Washington these days in densely packed with American dreams, modern homes with two- and three-car garages.

But McCloud's house hides back from the road, away from the city behind a wood fence that preserves 10 acres from the frenetic pace of life. It is a place to which people come for a traditional American Indian ceremony, or on the first step when beginning a sojourn, or to join a tribute to the Winter Moon at the solstice.

"The elders have said this is a spiritual place. For over 30 years, we've used this land to teach our traditional ways," McCloud,. an Indian elder herself, wrote recently. "When all is going crazy ... our people can come back to the center to find the calming effect; to reconnect with their spiritual self."

She calls this calming place "Sapa Dawn Center."

Sapa means "grandfather." And Grandfather Dawn in one way McCloud honors her late husband. N, who long taught the young people how to live off the land, where to fish or gather roots.

The McCloud grounds have seen muck more, too, in the quarter-century since the family wearied of the long drive to Seattle for Native American feasts and celebrations at Day-break Star center.

In 1985, far example, 300 women from many countries found their way to Sapa Down to talk about concerns they shared. "There was no motel in Yelm then." recalls McCloud. "So we put up tepees. One woman said: 'Where's the motel?'

I said. 'Here's a key: tepee number one or tepee number two.' "

The women camped for five days, talking about social, economic and family problems troubling native people throughout the Western Hemisphere. That was the birth of what now in called the Indigenous Women's Network, a coalition championing native women, families and tribal sovereignty from Chile to Canada, and which adopted McCloud as a founding mother.

McCloud could be considered the founding mother to dozens of Native American organizations because so many people have traveled to Yelm over the years seeking her wisdom.

Leaders of the American Indian Movement - Dennis Banks, Russell Means and others - came to Sapa Down and its sweat lodge before launching their 1973 takeover at Wounded Knee, S.D.

Women have been a force in many tribal societies for centuries. When 17th-century Cherokees met Europeans for the first time, they asked: "Where are your women?" It was inconceivable that discourse could occur between two nations when one nation was missing half its voice.

Yet, American history, and journalism, is mostly about what the men did. Sure, we've given some attention to women as "activists," but most have been dismissed as unique, one-time events.

Listen to McCloud, though, and you will hear something different - the voices of the women who are missing from the histories. Listen to a storyteller. She pulls out a cigarette, drags an ashtray closer, and draws up memory.

"When I think about it," she says, "I've done a lot of things. Now my old body is wearing out and I wonder how I've done it all."

McCloud was born March 30, 1934, on the Tulalip Reservation, in a world where alcohol and abuse defined her childhood. It was a hectic, rootless life because she moved so often - Tulalip, Taholah and Seattle - sometimes staying in church shelters or foster homes, other times moving to a new house because a stepfather couldn't pay the rent on the old one.\

She escaped by marrying and divorcing young.

Then she met Don McCloud, a Nisqually Indian, who had been working in Seattle as a truck driver. The McClouds had three children and decided they'd be better off raising their family in the natural world, living off the land

They moved to Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River, where Don's stepfather, Billy Frank Sr. and his family had fished for generations.

"Billy Frank never ate white bread until his 60s. He lived off the land, eating salmon, roots, berries," McCloud says. "I was a city kid on the river. The only salmon I ate was out of a can.

"I thought it was a beautiful life."

The McClouds bought their land in Yelm. It cost $4,700 and paying off the loan was a struggle. "Sometimes we even thought we'd lose it. But I was tired of moving. I wanted a place to raise my children."

Don worked part time at a dog-food factory, feeding the family was tough, and ''we were so glad if we could get a fish or a deer.''

McCloud discovered that not everyone saw her natural world as ideal. In January 1961, state game wardens burst into her home to search for deer meat.

"I just got mad," she says. "I asked them, 'Do you have a search warrant?' They did. It said 'John Doe.' That was my first experience with game wardens. It made me so mad, but that's the way they treated us back then."

That incident was just the beginning of a turbulent era in relations between Northwest tribes and the white government, of a changing Janet McCloud.

Washington's once-rich salmon runs were declining across the state and the game department blamed Indians fishing with nets outside of regulations.

This was an old conflict. While the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 guaranteed certain rights, the state claimed jurisdiction over all off-reservation hunting and fishing, including Indian fishing on the Nisqually River. In 1937, for example, state agents had arrested a number of Indians for illegal fishing, including Billy Frank Sr.

The region's population more than doubled over the next three decades and pressure grew to manage rivers exclusively for sport fishing. Indian fishing was a relic, something to be swept away by the power of the government. The on-and-off skirmishing between Indians and game wardens escalated into war as the 1960s began.

A Seattle Times news story from Jan. 7,1962, reflects the sensibilities of the period. "Wild West days - with a reverse twist - returned to the Nisqually River country between Tacoma and Olympia. A band of palefaces ambushed unsuspecting Indians. Equipped with a dozen automobiles, a reconnaissance plane, radio communication and a battle plan painstakingly worked out during the past three months, three dozen State Game Department agents combed the area for Indians 'illegally' fishing.

"When the raid ended after more than eight hours of sorties in wet brush and on the muddy, swollen stream, five Indians had been arrested and charged with 'operating set nets capable of taking game fish.'

McCloud reflects now: "The Nisqually River was targeted because it was so close to Olympia. We were so close to all that police power. That's when we had to organize.

Janet, Don and many others formed the Survival or American Indian Association because they saw the fight as an assault on Indian culture.

"We found an old mimeograph machine at Goodwill. Don tried and tried to make it work. He took a roller off - and it was almost pear-shaped," McCloud says. Yet, somehow he made the machine work and the new organization's paper -Survival News began publishing with Janet as editor.

The articles in Survival News told the native side of the fishing-rights story. McCloud pored through donated legal books, quoted from the state's charges against tribal fishing people, and wrote rebuttals based on treaty language.

Survival News articles were real because the editor and authors fished and were jailed during the struggle. In the manner of the time, the Indians demonstrated as well as fished, and in the language of the time, the demonstrations were labeled ''fish-ins'' in the press. The name stuck and fish-ins became official acts of defiance.

McCloud learned some of the movement's tactics from Dick Gregory, a comedian turned civil-rights activist. Gregory told the Indians to attract attention by getting arrested and staying in jail.

On Oct. 13, 1965, dozens of state agents surrounded a fish-in of about 50 Indians, mostly women and children.

When nets began to lower into the river, state game department boats rushed in and, as McCloud later put it in Survival Times, "things got out of hand."

"Wardens were everywhere and they all seemed to be eight feet tall," she wrote. "They were shoving, kicking, pushing clubs at men, women and children. We were vastly outnumbered yet we were all trying to protect one another.

Six Indians, including McCloud, were taken into custody and charged with resisting arrest.

McCloud says she didn't mind going to jail and was determined to fast because of the message it sent. ''Wouldn't you know, though, they cooked all my favorite foods like lima beans, ham, biscuits Still," she says, "we stuck it out."

All of the defendants were acquitted; the melee was captured on film and it was clear the Indians didn't cause it.

Meanwhile, the fight on the Nisqually River was drawing world attention.

Gregory paddled into the river to support the Indians. At first the state dismissed him as a publicity hound. Then he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 90 days in an Olympia jail. Gregory started fasting.

"Here this man is going to jail for us, living on distilled water," McCloud says. "So I collected kids off the rez and said, 'Let's go demonstrate.'"

Across from the jail, McCloud and other protesters put up a tepee. She told police that since Washington had reneged on the Medicine Creek Treaty, she was reclaiming her own land.

The encampment briefly became something of a tourist attraction.

State officials turned on sprinklers and arrested some of the people there, including McCloud's children.

Eight days later - on orders from the governor - troopers moved in and tore down the camp. Gregory was released a few days later.

There were many more battles-on and off the river - for Janet McCloud.

"You know," she says, "everyone tells different stories about all of this. You never hear about some people in the 'official' history. But we'd all be dead if it wasn't for the struggle. We were fast on our way to becoming alcoholics. I've always been grateful for those bumps in the head - because it woke me up."

Over the next two decades, McCloud woke up to even more activities. Just three examples from many:

In 1978, McCloud made a pointed visit to the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Jack Cunningham, a Washington Republican who had introduced a number of bills designed to abrogate treaties. "So I tore them up in his face."

In 1985, she was a delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women held in Nairobi, Kenya.

These days, though, at age 65, McCloud's work is focused closer to home, on her family and on making life better for young people. She has eight children, 25 grandchildren, 10 more adopted grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.

"So far."

The grounds at Sapa Dawn include a baseball field - "the kids made that" - as well as playground equipment donated by the Puyallup Tribe. The property even looks like it might be located on a reservation with its arbors built for Sundances, wildflowers and traditional roots.

There is a smokehouse and an outdoor kitchen and a garden. "You know, traditional people try to get you to grow your own food. It's all here. We can live off this land, There's no government - or even tribes - telling us what we can do here."

This is McCloud's statement of personal sovereignty. She has traveled all over the world saying exactly what she believed and living accordingly. The land at Sapa Dawn is sovereign because McCloud lives it.

No matter where the battles have taken her, the road always has led back to Sapa Dawn. It is the center of everything. In just 30 years, the place has come to feel sacred through respect for tradition and respect for its bounty.

"If everything stops, I know my kids will survive," McCloud can say today. "They know the simple, natural ways."

In 1971, she traveled to Williamsburg, Va., as a delegate to a national conference on corrections, advocating for American Indians in prisons. She urged, among other things, that prison systems support traditional religion as a path to ward reconciliation a philosophy now widely practiced with Native American inmates.

Janet McCloud views the Nisqually River. photo Alan Berner
Wearing a raven jacket given to her by daughter Barbara, McCloud views the Nisqually River, a focal point during the years of Indian fishing-rights struggles.


Mark N Trahant is a Seattle Times columnist who writes about the West.
Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.

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