Interview and Project By Cecelia La-Pointe Gorman; blog post written by Erika Wigren
“At one point I was looking at thirty-five years in prison for just standing up and saying the Indians have a right to life…And Indians have a right to live, and we have a right to a reasonable quality of life, and we have a right to a sense of permanence.” — Ramona Bennett.
As a longtime leader for the Puyallup Tribe, Ramona Bennett has always been a force to be reckoned with. From aiding in local fish-ins to the takeover of Tacoma’s Cushman Hospital, Bennett has spent over forty years working on behalf of the Puyallup Tribe and the Pacific Northwest Native American Community.
Bennett began her work in the 1950s in Seattle’s American Indian Women’s Service League. In 1964, she co-founded the Survival of American Indians Association, an organization that helped bring local fish-ins to national prominence.
She also co-founded the Local Indian Child Welfare Act Committee which helped in securing a national Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. Bennett also opened doors for women activists by actively fighting attempts during the 1970s to exclude her from National Tribal Chairmen’s Conferences.
“At one point I was looking at thirty-five years in prison for just standing up and saying the Indians have a right to life,” Bennett said, “And Indians have a right to live, and we have a right to a reasonable quality of life, and we have a right to a sense of permanence.”
Perhaps the most well-known social justice work of Bennett’s was her role in the takeover of both the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington, DC in 1972 and the 1976 takeover of Tacoma’s Cushman Hospital.
In a 1976 interview with Clara Faser of the Freedom Socialist newspaper in Seattle, Bennett stated “we’ll not be bought off or bribed to become goodie-goodies…And we’ll keep this land and this building too. It’s all ours, and you fight for what’s yours.”
Hundreds of Native Americans and their supporters held the hospital for seven days until negotiations finally began with the State, ultimately leading to a victory for the Puyallup Tribe. After a week an official agreement between the tribe, the State and the federal government was made, 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.
In the 1980s, Bennett served as an administrator for the Wa-He-Lut Indian School in Olympia before going on to co-found Rainbow Youth and Family Services, a Tacoma-based non-profit that she still directs today.