June 2, 1970. Trudell died of cancer at 69 in 2015. And by 1969 they had begun asking themselves what an American Indian destiny might be and how it might be achieved. Owen Oliver’s father was briefly part of the occupation. America had finished its westward expansion decades earlier, but Indians remained. Alcatraz, former maximum-security prison located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, off the coast of California.
The protest was the brainchild of Adam Nordwall, a middle-aged Ojibwe businessman from the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, who owned a pest control company, and Richard Oakes, a charismatic young Mohawk ironworker who had left the East Coast and traveled to San Francisco, where he found work as a bartender. One of the significant accomplishments of the occupation was that it brought together people of many tribes. “It’s unsustainable. It was at one of those protests that Martinez met a pivotal figure in the Alcatraz movement: A tall Mohawk man he came to know as Richard Oakes. Since the 1950s, the United States had eliminated dozens of American Indian tribes, but changed its policy of termination and assimilation during the Alcatraz occupation, which lasted 19 months. Fifty years ago, those activists traveled to the Rock in order to remind America of its promises to us, in an appeal to its better nature. Essentially, Indians with guns,” Blansett says. An indigenous man himself, descending from the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee and Potawatomi nations, Blansett only learned Oakes’s name as an underclassman at university. Why is it that they don’t know this history?”. We could make our own rules. They had refused to comply with U.S. government policies such as forced education. Elvin Willie/Alcatraz Indian Occupation Records, History Center, San Francisco Public Library. I just hit him in the nose.”, That act of violence landed Martinez in court. They forged a lifelong friendship over the bologna and cheese sandwiches Lesee had packed – an “Indian banquet,” Martinez quips. Following the canoe journey, tribes shared songs, dances and prayers in a gift-giving tradition known as potlatch. There, every article of clothing he had, apart from his socks, was stamped with a number. “To use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit’s land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian.” Circa February 1970. Please upgrade your browser.
Blansett’s admiration for Oakes eventually led him to write the first book-length biography of the Alcatraz leader. While protesting in Washington in 1979, his second wife, their three children and her mother were killed in a house fire. The groping and the taunting made no difference. His killer, 34-year-old Michael Morgan, claimed self-defence. But he was equally struck by the chatter he heard around him from tourists eager to tour the prison cells of gangsters like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. The island, The Times reported, became “a focal point symbolic of Indian people.” Dec. 7, 1969. Surviving torture in a Syrian prison made me who I am today, What it’s like to be an American abroad during the election, An American comes home, voting with gratitude, Biden edges closer to projected electoral victory: Live news, Biden wins state of Arizona, first Democrat to do so since 1996, Five key US states that will decide the fate of Biden and Trump, Trump’s election legal strategy is last-ditch effort: Experts, Al Jazeera Centre for Public Liberties & Human Rights. Lands, rights, treaties, freedom – it all can be stripped away. At night, when the coastguard beamed floodlights across the island, Martinez remembers seeing sleeping bags stretched out in all directions: Tired masses, yearning as much as anyone to be free. He remembers very little. They intended to make landfall on territory belonging to the United States government with the intent of claiming it for themselves. He does not know if he will live to see it. Two activists walking through the abandoned Alcatraz prison during the occupation. But suspended between those two narratives is Alcatraz. There was a non-violent movement led by both women and men, families in tow.
We occupy a lot of America’s head space — a fundamental part of the country’s self-regard and the stories it tells about itself — but most Americans will go their entire lives without having any kind of prolonged, sustained contact with us in person. Oakes ultimately helped concoct the plan to take over Alcatraz Island in a classroom at San Francisco State University. They cooked and cleaned together. It led to a new wave of activism among Native Americans, one that would go on to include the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 as well as the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. While this news article appears to give a non-biased account of the events on November 20, 1969, it is clear that there is some negative sentiment towards the occupation of Alcatraz …
More sheriffs knocking at his door. That commemoration work has not always earned Martinez respect. And yet, the original occupiers saw Alcatraz Island as a beacon of hope. “In the beginning of the occupation, in the beginning of this whole ordeal, I didn’t know who I was.
I didn’t. The discovery that his campus housed Indigenous remains – a desecration in the name of science – had launched him into activism, and he sought inspiration through research. He is 79 now and walks with a cane after a motorcycle accident broke his pelvis. That diversity was seen in the flags of various tribal nations that hung on shore during the day’s journey around the island. Rituals like paddling are considered to be acts of resistance, a declaration of heritage that Native Americans say was almost lost during the government’s efforts to assimilate them. They painted messages of freedom across its prison walls and erected a tipi on its shores – a West Coast answer to the Statue of Liberty. If Sitting Bull quit the fight and toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Russell Means never did (though he was the voice for Pocahontas’s father in the Disney cartoon of her life). Joggers, bikers and tourists had to be slightly rerouted to avoid the activities, and some of them frowned at the mild inconvenience.
Indians of All Tribes made a final attempt to seize Alcatraz in the early morning hours of November 20, 1969—this time with an occupation force of 89 men, women and children. She died five days later, and Oakes left the island. After the occupation, he went on to become the chairman of the American Indian Movement.
A history professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Blansett regularly asks his classes if they know Oakes’s name.
Occupying Alcatraz: The spark that lit the US Red Power movement. Cortney Russell of the Shxwhá:y Village in Canada stood in her canoe after circling the island and delivered a defiant message to the crowd standing on shore: “Despite the attempt to assimilate us through cultural genocide, we the original caretakers of the land, we are still here. They were focused, and their energy was dissipated in endless feuds.
It was at one of the United States‘s most infamous prisons, more than a mile from any shore, that Eloy Martinez found a vision of freedom. Alcatraz veteran Eloy Martinez still dreams of a day when he can walk down the street like any other person, a day when “nobody’s watching me like I’m an interloper”. He had seen coal companies tear through the reservation farmland his grandmother once called home, and his own freedom had been curtailed by stints in juvenile detention. But it was unsustainable. Part of its strategy was to disband communities and to relocate them into urban settings. The group uses dance to raise awareness of the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Becoming Native. The way he sees it, the original occupiers set out to build an Indigenous cultural centre, and it exists today on Alcatraz. A woodcut by 14-year-old Elvin Willie (whose name is misspelled above) appeared in the first issue of the Indians of All Tribes Alcatraz Newsletter produced during the occupation. Onshore, members of the Lummi Nation performed the Blackfish Dance, which featured traditional tribal masks. Fifty years ago a group of activists set sail to reclaim Alcatraz Island, ushering in a new era of indigenous activism. The significance of that time period only hit him at age 13, after he found his late father’s suitcase, brimming with newspaper clippings and documents. On the other side of that flat fantasy are the myths that arose after Alcatraz and, subsequently, the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington in 1972 and the more prolonged and violent takeover of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. Bethel College Library and the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office/Courtesy San Francisco Public Library, This 1970 map from the United States Census Bureau shows the Native American population by county. “She’s in the east, and we would be right here in the west, saying this is Indian land.”. We became the villain in the story.”. Members of at least a dozen tribes participated in the occupation, making numerous trips to and from the island until the last activists were removed by United States marshals, 18 months after the protest began. “We’re filling these canoes with sober people, and these young kids are seeing that,” added Mr. McCloud, whose grandmother took part in the occupation. So 50 years on, Martinez is determined to spread the one thing no one can take away: Education. In October 2019, she and other activists returned to Alcatraz Island in a “canoe journey” that honored the occupation. As Vine Deloria Jr. put it in his watershed book of that year, “Custer Died for Your Sins”: “The more we try to be ourselves the more we are forced to defend what we have never been. Native people are America’s most visible invisible minority.
For a year and a half, they loved and suffered, starved and partied, painted slogans and formed councils. Fifty years ago, dozens of Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island, an act of defiance against a government they said had long trampled on their rights. To the Great White Father and his People 1969. Almost immediately, bickering and ill will descended on the activists.
“Where would we be as a country if we didn’t know the name Martin Luther King? Sovereignty was never something he expected to find. For years, Martinez has helped lead efforts to preserve the occupation’s history and restore what evidence remains.
Circa 1969.Credit...Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images. During that time the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.”.
They talked and shared stories and drummed and planned, together, for the future.
Richard Oakes, a Mohawk ironworker, was working as a bartender when he and Adam Nordwall put forward the idea of the occupation. Others have followed suit, he said. “I do it for my grandchildren, for the future generation.”.
Nobody knew whether the night would end in cheers or arrest. January 1970.
Those myths stand in counterpoint and contrast to the earlier ones of our demise and largely center on the leaders of Native resistance. It is also an opportunity to proudly practice their Native culture on the water.
Butterflies in Spirit, a group out of Vancouver that includes women from different tribes, also performed.
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