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Remembering the past: 50 years ago, Native Americans occupied Milwaukee Coast Guard station

"For me, I never lost that fire"
Posted at 5:29 AM, Nov 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-11 09:47:07-05

MILWAUKEE — This Native American Heritage Month, we are remembering a Milwaukee movement which caught the attention of then-President Nixon.

It was when Native Americans staged a takeover at a Milwaukee Coast Guard station.

We spoke to Dorothy Powless, who remembers what it was like during the most intense moments.

Dorothy was one of the first people inside the U.S. Coast Guard station, left abandoned along the lakefront by the government.

She answered the phone then and said, “‘Hello, this is American Indian Movement?’” adding about the Coast Guard, “we were so stunned, saying, ‘Wow! They were answering our phones now!’”

Dorothy Powless

Her former husband Herb Powless fought for weeks to prove their right to take over the deserted building. “Cops came down but we were standing our ground no matter what. This is part of our land," said Dorothy.

They pointed to a treaty from 1868 which said any abandoned federal property or land automatically reverts back to the indigenous tribe.

“There were a lot of natives that came down and supported us, came down and helped. They cooked,” said Dorothy.

A video included an interview with her former husband Herb, which she had never seen before. In it he said back in 1971, “We want to highlight the drastic need of our people. There are funding agencies that are helping other people, but they've neglected us, the first Americans," said Herb.

“He was so passionate about what we were doing,” said Dorothy.

Herb eventually traveled to Washington D.C. to negotiate. “A special assistant to Nixon at the time met with him and got him to turn it over to Herb basically," explained Dorothy.

The larger building was turned into the first known Indian Community School. The smaller building was a halfway house for indigenous people.

“The American Indian movement put life back into native people. It put pride back into a lot of people. For me, I never lost that fire,” said Dorothy.

The 80-year-old believes more movements like these should happen and pushes all people to continue to fight for what they believe in.

Click here to see the full footage taken of the American Indian Movement back in August 1971.

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