Native Americans Liberate The Rock
Celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Alcatraz Occupation
By Ilka Hartmann
"We Will Not Give Up" Oohosis, a Cree from Canada, and Brenda, an urban Indian from the Bay Area give the Red Power salute on Alcatraz, 1971. Photo by: Ilka Hartmann
On November 10, 1969 newspaper headlines read "Indians on Alcatraz". In the middle of the night, Indians had chartered a boat and 14 of them had climbed onto The Rock to claim Alcatraz for the Indians. When reading the news in the morning paper, the vast majority of Bay Area residents responded with the expression of the time--“Right On!”
There had been the Civil Rights Movement in the South, then the Black Power Movement. The Panthers had been formed in Oakland. The United Farmworkers, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, were organizing in the San Joaquin Valley. At San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement and Peoples Park, there had been "Third World Strikes”. Students had demanded and clashed with the police for ethnic studies--Black Study Programs, Chicano-, Asian- and Native American Studies.
Now there was Red Power.
The Indians were the least-mentioned in the demonstrations and now they had accomplished a symbolic gesture that sparked everyone's imagination and created enormous support throughout the Bay Area.
After the federal prison on Alcatraz closed in 1963, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors began accepting proposals for what to do with the unused island in the middle of the Bay. Adam Nordwall (later Fortunate Eagle), a Bay Area urban Indian leader, made a proposal to one of the supes that the island should be given back to the Native Americans now that the federal government was not using it. There was a Sioux treaty which stated that all federal land no longer used must go back to the Native people from whom it was taken originally. Already in 1964, a group of Sioux Indians went to the island, staked a claim, and had their lawyer file papers in court to back up their claim. Nothing happened. And nothing happened with Adam's proposal either.
By 1969, there was a lively discussion in the papers of the Bay Area about the fate of the island. Newspaper readers even sent in coupons to their paper stating their preferences. A Texas millionaire, Lamar Hunt proposed a 21st century space theme-park on the island; a hideous idea which would have transformed Alcatraz to a bizarre commercial piece of real estate.
Then, the San Francisco Indian Center burned down and the many Indians in the City no longer had a place of their own. They were now without a gathering place where they could meet other Indians, speak their native language and come together for celebrations or practical support.
And then there was Alcatraz Island--unused.
On November 9, 1969 members of the large Bay Area urban Indian population and college students from universities around the state tried twice to take Alcatraz back. The second time, late in the day, 14 Indians made it. They willingly left the island the next day, but the idea was not dead.
On November 20, 1969, 92 Indians crossed the Bay, landed on the island and held it for 19 months.
What had happened?
That day, the phone rang in a bar in Sausalito. When the bartender answered it, an Indian man was on the line. The caller asked if the bartender and some other skippers could take a group of Indians to an undisclosed destination in the Bay? "Is it Alcatraz?" the bartender queried. "Yes" the Indian man replied. "Terrific!" said the bartender. "Meet us when the bars close."
At 1 a.m., Indians started arriving in Sausalito, more and more of them. The police were beginning to notice them, too. Later, one of the skippers remarked that he had actually seen people make themselves vanish that night. They dissolved into the Sausalito fog and reappeared at the dock! As Indians snuck down to the water throughout the night of November 20, 1969, ferries made repeated trips to the island. The woman skipper actually sailed twice in complete darkness; the motor on the boat she had borrowed did not work.
By morning, there were Indians all over the island, even some kids. They settled in, moved into the Warden's Building, the cells, the kitchen--and the world took notice. That is, the press took notice. Adam Nordwall had good relations with the press. There were Tim Findley, the writer for the Chronicle; Brooks Townes, one of the skippers of the Sausalito Indian Navy, who worked as a freelance photographer; the Chronicle photographer Vincent Maggiora; and soon, a group of “underground” photographers and journalists.
Now the plight of the Native people of this continent was coming out not only in U.S. papers, but also in Germany, France, Japan and other parts of the world. "Since 1492 to the present, November 9,1969, the Indian people have been held in bondage. Alcatraz is a release from that bondage," John Trudell later said in one of his radio programs on "Radio Free Alcatraz" aired on KPFA.
On Alcatraz, Indians had a platform. They could speak about the tragedy that had fallen upon their people five centuries ago and which was continuing on the reservations and in the urban ghettos. "They should have killed us all then, so there wouldn't be any of us left today,” said John Whitefox, one of the original Occupiers.
Termination and Relocation
This is how it was for Indians in 1969: There was 75 percent unemployment (reservation and urban Indians combined). The average age of death for men was 40. The suicide rate for Indians was ten times the national average. Alcoholism and crimes committed while drunk were higher than in any other group. There was only one Indian with a PhD in the whole country!
Why were there so many Indians in the Bay Area? With estimates ranging from 10-40,000, they came from everywhere in the United States. As many as 100 different tribes were represented here, the majority from outside of California. The names of the two federal programs that had brought many of the Indians to the Bay Area were ‘Relocation’ and ‘Termination’.
Relocation was a government program that moved Indians from the reservation to the city and trained them in jobs. Once in the city, over 60 percent grew discouraged and dropped out of the program when no job was forthcoming. The government dropped many others after they had gotten jobs. As soon as that job was over, the Indian was alone in the city. Homesick, lonely, unaccustomed to the urban ways, away from family and friends and the natural world, many Indians ended up in the poorest, most dangerous parts of a city, and many eventually found solace in the Indian bars.
Termination was a government program to end all Indian reservations by helping Indian people assimilate into the mainstream. Eventually they would have no more rights to receive any help from the same government that had made them lose their previous self-sufficiency and their land.
Not all of the Native Americans whose home now was the Bay Area had just recently dropped into city life. Some grew up here, raised in the urban world. Many did not admit they were Native American because of the prevailing prejudice. Rather, they said they were "Mexican", others married non-Indians and blended into the suburbs.
After November 20, when the word about the Occupation got out to Indian Country, Indians came from all over--for a visit or to stay on the island. Some moved their families to Alcatraz, others came every weekend with their kids.
The Indians who stayed on the island called themselves "Indians of All Tribes". Those from reservations got to know members of other tribes, and the urban Indians learned what it meant to be an Indian. "It was the first time I ever smoked the pipe," a woman from San Francisco said. Much time was spent around the fire talking, drumming and singing. The Occupiers cooked together, repaired equipment and taught each other Indian dancing and beading.
They formed a Council which met regularly to arrange their daily life and create a vision for the future Indian use of the island. They planned a spiritual center, a university, a restaurant with Native food, and an ecology center. A school for young children and a health center were set up quickly. Food, clothing and money was donated by the Bay Area community who broke the blockade the Coast Guard initially tried to keep around the island.
The first spokesperson to emerge among the Occupiers was Richard Oakes, a Mohawk, who came to live on the island with his wife, Annie, and their children. He was an eloquent and charismatic student at SF State, and had first become known to the press when, on November 9, he read the deeply serious Proclamation written by the urban Indian community. Unfortunately, when a terrible event took place on the island--Yvonne Oakes, Annie's and Richard's daughter, fell down several stories in an apartment building and later died--the family left the island, never to return.
La Nada Means (later Boyer), a Shoshone-Bannock, who had been active in the Third World Strike at UC Berkeley also became a vocal defender and protector of the Occupiers. She and John Trudell, a Santee Sioux, negotiated with the US government throughout the 19 months of the Occupation. The Indians wanted title to the island. The government drew the negotiations out. From interviews with a former Nixon aide we know today that the US government never intended to give title to the Indians or let them have a university on the island.
For a time, it seemed that the government would let the Indians stay on the island indefinitely. Yet after a while they took away the water barge. The lack of water made life on the island even harsher. Often it was cold and windy and buildings were crumbling. Living places were hard to keep warm, especially after the electricity was cut off. Getting back and forth to the island was difficult. At times, the Indians owned a boat. Mostly they didn't, and Occupiers had to hitch rides.
Eventually the character of the Occupation changed. Many of the students had to leave by the end of January to stay in school, keep their financial aid, and to avoid being drafted for the war in Vietnam. By and by, alcohol and drugs got onto the island. The "Security" team overstepped its power, and some of the people who came were from the rougher world of the streets. The support of the Bay Area community dwindled. There were negative reports in the press about conditions on Alcatraz. Finally, there was a fire. It was unclear who started it. The lighthouse was damaged and the Alcatraz beacon could no longer be seen in the Bay.
On June 11, 1971, Federal Marshals came to the island and removed the 15 Indians who were there that day. They took the Occupiers to the Senator Hotel in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco and paid for one night. After that everyone was on their own; The Occupation of Alcatraz was over.
"They lied to us!" John Trudell said. The Indians were negotiating with the government about the title for Alcatraz while the government already had plans to remove them.
On July 8, 1970, President Richard Nixon ended the policy of Termination and Relocation and began the policy of Self-Determination. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land were returned to their original Native American owners.
The Occupation of Alcatraz had a life-changing impact on many Indians and also on some of the local journalists and photographers who documented it. Indians had now been freed to be openly proud of their identity. Across the country, protests for Indian rights followed, and there were a number of land take-overs, including an army base near Davis where D-Q University, a Chicano-Indian college was founded.
Some Indians were inspired to go back home to their reservations and work for their tribe. Former Occupier Dennis Hastings brought back the Sacred Staff of the Omaha from a museum on the East Coast where it had been for a hundred years. Wilma Mankiller was elected Principle Chief of her people, the Cherokee, in Oklahoma. Ed Castillo became a historian and today directs the Native American Studies Program at Sonoma State University. La Nada Boyer received her PhD in Political Science. Many women left their suburban lives and moved into the now vibrant urban Indian community to contribute their talents.
The occupation of Alcatraz was over, but the Native Americans who took the island for that brief time never stopped fighting for recognition.
Sources: Adam Fortunate Eagle, Heart of the Rock. Troy R. Johnson, Editor: Alcatraz, Indian Land Forever
See more Alcatraz Occupation photos by Ilka Hartman at the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa. http://www.ilkahartmann.com