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. Occupations arose from coast to coast, from Pit River, California to Washington, DC, leading then-President Richard Nixon to declare an end to federal termination policies. Martinez himself had picked a plum cell at the bottom of the prison – comfortably close to the toilet, he chuckles – to curl up in at night. “My sanctuary at the university became the E stacks in the library,” he says. At the time, California had the second-largest Native American population of any state. In 1895, a group of Hopi men was held on Alcatraz Island for seven months on sedition charges. The group, which called itself the Indians of All Tribes, began articulating its vision in earnest via news conferences, radio interviews and news broadcasts. “Most of the images, when you think about Red Power, revolve around the  occupation of Wounded Knee. And even then, Martinez recalls one former federal marshal who threatened him for promoting the occupation’s history. We had the run of the island,” Martinez says of that time. 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. “That lit the spark of the Red Power movement. It is there, on that carved rock, that truly modern Native Americans can be said to have begun. Becoming strong in your community. It took stubborn lobbying to launch the programmes and exhibits that exist on the island today. “I saw the end of the rainbow,” he wrote in a magazine article, “the wrong end.”. “It turned that whole tide of assimilation,” said LaNada War Jack, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Alcatraz Proclamation. 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. But in Alcatraz, Blansett found an alternative. And by 1969 they had begun asking themselves what an American Indian destiny might be and how it might be achieved. For 19 months they held the island, sketching a blueprint for how the US could be. The Rock, they thought, would make a perfect replacement for the destroyed Indian center. When Oakes dove into the waters off Alcatraz and reached the island on November 9, 1969 – as a kind of test run for the full-scale occupation – Martinez recognised it as a turning point. 1970. The owner’s son had a reputation for groping the women while their hands were full, and Martinez called him out on it. 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. Martinez, a member of the Southern Ute Tribe, was no stranger to injustice. For Oakes’s children, the legacy of Alcatraz has been difficult to grapple with. It is also an opportunity to proudly practice their Native culture on the water. Negotiations with the Nixon administration continued but — despite what seemed to be genuine sympathy on President Richard M. Nixon’s part — ultimately led nowhere. “People say Alcatraz is not an island. On Nov. 20, 1969, more than 70 Native Americans gathered before dawn on a dock in San Francisco Bay. 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”. 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. But the “Indian future” determined “by Indian acts and Indian decisions” that Nixon promised never truly materialised. The trouble, he recalls, started when he was nine years old. Nothing grows to sustain you. Occupation of Alcatraz: Historically in the United States, the US government did a poor job of upholding its treaties with Native American tribes. Two activists walking through the abandoned Alcatraz prison during the occupation. “I hadn’t thought about that for a long time.”. 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. Oakes, in particular, gave the young Blansett “new ideas of what Native masculinity is”. Nobody knew whether the night would end in cheers or arrest. The American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always THERE.”, He added, “To be an Indian in modern American society is in a very real way to be unreal and ahistorical.”, What that meant in day-to-day life for the Native community was, as Oakes saw it, bickering, brawling, drinking, poverty and alienation. Shannon Morrison, who is Tlingit, said her parents took her onto the island as a baby during the occupation. The protest’s architects were largely college students, united under the name Indians of All Tribes. Elvin Willie/Alcatraz Indian Occupation Records, History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Colonisation is a two-way street. And yet, the original occupiers saw Alcatraz Island as a beacon of hope. Sovereignty was never something he expected to find. There, every article of clothing he had, apart from his socks, was stamped with a number. “There was none of the naysayers around you. By contrast, with Oakes, “here’s this Native man who was powerful but who could also showcase emotion, showcase love.”. Famous people made donations without a thought about how those donations would be or could be used. “Native men were always seen in the stereotypical vein of not showing emotion, not being able to cry,” Blansett says. Becoming Native. Alcatraz had been reclaimed as indigenous land. Trudell died of cancer at 69 in 2015. [Read more about how activists returned to Alcatraz in October 2019 to commemorate the occupation’s anniversary.]. 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 … 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… 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. A Sioux actor and poet, Trudell was a spokesman for the occupying tribes and founded Radio Free Alcatraz, which broadcast from the island. Elvin Willie/Alcatraz Indian Occupation Records, History Center, San Francisco Public Library Image During the 18-month occupation of Alcatraz Island … The groping and the taunting made no difference. And a museum, to honour indigenous contributions to the world. An idea to help one another. Then Morgan was acquitted entirely. 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. “He pointed to me and said, ‘I want to tell you something.’ He says, ‘If Nixon and [White House adviser Leonard] Garment hadn’t ordered a stand-down in 1969, I would have blown your a** out of the water.'”. 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. “That’s when I discovered Alcatraz.”, It was a stark contrast to the prevailing narratives he knew, which linked Indigenous activism to violence. As for Fawn, returning to Alcatraz has been part of her healing process. Oakes ultimately helped concoct the plan to take over Alcatraz Island in a classroom at San Francisco State University. The potlatch participants saw that as yet another form of disrespect toward their culture. It was a poignantly symbolic move, the Indian rock on the West Coast standing in contrast to the whiteness of Plymouth Rock to the east. A talkative man, he now pauses. But Martinez remains undeterred. There were no rules. Joggers, bikers and tourists had to be slightly rerouted to avoid the activities, and some of them frowned at the mild inconvenience. Circa 1969. “I do it for my grandchildren, for the future generation.”. Alcatraz, former maximum-security prison located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, off the coast of California. Ms. War Jack was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leader of the occupation. It has helped her come to terms with her family’s grief – and develop pride in her father’s work. An ecology centre, to reverse the destruction of their land. America had finished its westward expansion decades earlier, but Indians remained. If Chief Joseph was captured, Dennis Banks never was (he did, however, turn himself in). Richard Oakes, a Mohawk ironworker, was working as a bartender when he and Adam Nordwall put forward the idea of the occupation. I just hit him in the nose.”, That act of violence landed Martinez in court. Onshore, members of the Lummi Nation performed the Blackfish Dance, which featured traditional tribal masks. But when dawn broke over the abandoned federal prison on Alcatraz Island 50 years ago, on November 20, 1969, a new era of indigenous activism was born. After that, there was no going back.”, Decades later, when Kent Blansett boarded a ferry to Alcatraz, he too felt an awakening. Alcatraz Island, also known as ‘The Rock,’ a rocky island in San Francisco Bay, off the coast of California, in the United States. A fire during the occupation destroyed the lighthouse, warden’s home and infirmary of the former federal penitentiary. Native people are met as myth in the mind or not at all. June 2, 1970. 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. “It’s unsustainable. Those myths stand in counterpoint and contrast to the earlier ones of our demise and largely center on the leaders of Native resistance.
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