Native America for beginners – Alcatraz

Alcatraz-Occupation-03 The seagulls sound like hundreds of barking Chihuahuas. In the distance the wind haunts through the skeleton of the Model Industries Building and gently pulls a bell.

‘Uh… what in particular are you interested in?’, the park ranger looks confused, hesitant. Guess, the common questions here are about prison escape attempts and Al Capone. I’m annoyed. The ferry ticket lady had to ask her supervisor about the exhibit and the Alcatraz Tour website doesn’t mention it with a single word. This part of Alcatraz’ history deserves to be known, to be learned about by everybody who visits the island, but instead it is easily missed: 79 Native American men, women and children occupied the island for 19 months (11/69 – 6/71) to raise awareness for Native American civil rights and to fight for justice. ‘It is easier to learn about the flowers that the prisoners had planted!!’ I think to myself, ‘Maybe because Flowers are nicer and not as inconvenient as civil rights activists.’

Finally the park ranger points me to the entrance on the left, the Barracks Building, and mumbles about the graffiti on the water tower.

The entrance leads into a hall. To the left a large, dark room with three video screens which show a documentary about the history of Alcatraz, including escape attempts, Al Capone and the occupation. I guess the majority of the people that came with me on the ferry is there.

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On the right I find the exhibit. While I look at the 15 photographs and listen to the video a family of four enters the room. Mom says ‘Oh, that’s about the Indians. Not the one’s from India…’. They circle through the room and leave. Out of all the people in the large room, this family is the only one that enters the room. Would more people be interested if they knew that without the occupation Alcatraz Island may not have become a National Park? But first things first.

In 1953 the US government passed a law, Relocation and Termination Policy. Federal relationship to 109 Native American tribes was terminated and thousands of people were relocated. Children had to attend Boarding Schools which should make them more European-like. Land was no longer protected and sold to Non-Native people.

850,000 Indian people suffer a 42-year life expectancy, seven times the national suicide rate, three times the national average infant mortality rate, and an average income per year per family of $1500 or less. Housing is completely inadequate, and the prisons are crammed with Indian people. The Native Sovereign People have become the most poverty stricken, mistreated, suppressed people in the richest nation in the world, in their own land.’ (New Mexico State Record Center and Archives)

Following the promises of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of a better life with jobs and health care, many stranded in big US cities. In the mid 1960’s around 40,000 Native Americans lived in the Bay Area.

The prison on Alcatraz Island was closed in 1963 and the island was classified as surplus land. Which is like a left over, I guess. In March 1964 a small group of Sioux Indians landed on Alcatraz Island and claimed it under an 1868 Sioux treaty according to which they were entitled to claim unused federal land. This first occupation lasted only a couple of hours, but in November 1969 fourteen Native Americans from different tribes occupied the island again. They made their way to the island despite a blockade of the Coast Guard: jumping over board and swimming 230 meter through the rough Bay.

They claimed the island by right of discovery in the name of Indians of All Tribes with the goal to build a center for Native American studies, a Museum, and a spiritual center. Right of discovery, as in ‘we discover back what you claimed to have discovered after we had discovered it already long before’.

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They stayed on the island and many people joined the occupiers, native and non-native. It was estimated that through the whole occupation around 15.000 people came to Alcatraz as visitors and supporters. From the mainland came donations of food and money. There was a daily 15 minute ‘Radio Free Alcatraz’ and an Indian of All Tribes Newsletter. Also a number of significant documents and pieces of art were created on the island. One is the proclamation, written by Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall:

To the Great White Father and All His People:

We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty: We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for 24 dollars in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these sixteen acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years. Our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the 47 cents per acre the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land… (read more)

The US government had already a PR nightmare regarding many other topics and didn’t want to risk more trouble. Instead of forcefully removing the occupiers, it played a waiting game.

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The longer the occupation went, the more problems came up: jealousy, a tragic accident, departure of Richard Oakes, who was the driving force for the occupation, formation of different groups within the once united occupiers, a fire that destroyed buildings, rumors about weapons on the island and also the return of many occupiers to university for the next semester. In June 1971 the remaining 15 occupiers were forcefully removed by government officers.

The occupiers didn’t get what they had asked for, Alcatraz, but the occupation had some impact on the situation of Native American lives. 72 other occupations followed the one on Alcatraz and the federal government returned 40 million acres of land to Native American tribes.

Unfortunately, none of this I’ve learned from the exhibit, but from the book ‘We hold the Rock’, the documentary ‘Alcatraz is not an island’ and various internet pages. I couldn’t see the proclamation on the island, neither the original nor a replica. I wonder, why not? Why are there no signs and photographs all over the island? Why does the Audio tour not mention it. The large image of the occupiers in the cell tract, why is it hiding in this tiny basement room? It should be in the cell tract. The tepee should be on the island.

It’s hard to find evidence of all this on Alcatraz. It is as if Native American’s, their situation back then as well as nowadays are not existing, invisible, hidden in the basement, under the surface of mainstream USA. Not mentioned to those thousands of tourists that are coming to Alcatraz daily, looking for the thrill of Al Capone and Co.

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  1 comment for “Native America for beginners – Alcatraz

  1. Erin
    July 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Well thats crappy. When I was there about a year and a half ago, the occupation was pretty heavily covered, including a special after tour presentation and a full room in the main building. Then again, that was on the night tour, which had several talks and was more expensive than the regular tour. http://adventuresinnorcal.com/alcatraz/

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