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The Fight to Occupy Alcatraz

On Columbus Day, Native activists are returning to the island. This time, they have partners in the establishment.

Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Persecution of Native peoples in the United States accelerated in the 20th Century. Allotment laws, which had started with the Dawes Act of 1887, broke up tribal lands; specialized, re-education-focused boarding schools, introduced around the same time and ramped up through the 1930s, stole children and languages; and the termination policies that cropped up in the 1950s to disband tribes sought to eliminate Native people altogether as political entities. By 1969, indigenous people in the U.S. felt it was time to act.

That year, Vine Deloria Jr., a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, published his seminal book Custer Died for Your Sins, an incisive, and hilarious indictment of the shallow American understanding of the modern Indigenous communities and nations they shared the land with. That November, a group of Native activists landed on the island of Alcatraz in an act of protest against the U.S. government. They proceeded to occupy Alcatraz for 19 months.

Like the Standing Rock protests of 2016, the Occupation of Alcatraz—aimed at increasing Native visibility—has frequently been portrayed in mainstream media as an exceptional event. In fact, it was part of a continuous tradition of indigenous protest: In 1972, five hundred members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) took and held the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington, D.C. The following February, AIM members led the Occupation of Wounded Knee; come March, Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather faced down a star-studded crowd of hecklers as she accepted the Best Picture award on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars, a protest statement Brando made in support of the Wounded Knee Occupation.

Most Americans still think of Alcatraz for its history as a federal penitentiary and not as a symbol of the Native Civil Rights movement. Wounded Knee is associated more with the massacre of the 19th century than the Occupation of 1972. But the protests also established the foundation for modern resistive actions, like Standing Rock and Mauna Kea. And as the fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation approaches, the surviving Occupiers, paired with a new generation of young Native leaders, are hoping to remind Americans of this long-ignored facet of American history, while capitalizing on the progress they’ve made since then.

On November 20, 1969, a boat pulled out of the San Francisco harbor. On board were 89 Native activists, ready to respond to the treasured American tradition of breaking treaties.

The decision by the Native students and activists aboard the boat had been a thoughtful one. For decades, a federal government that had signed agreements with hundreds of tribal nations saying it would act as their steward had been forcing them off protected territories. One of the Occupation’s leaders, Shoshone Bannock activist Lanada War Jack, who was then a doctoral candidate at University of California Berkeley, had successfully petitioned for the creation of a Native studies curriculum for the entire University of California public school system as a leading proponent of the Third World Strike for Ethnic Studies. But the tide was moving too slowly.

At the time, and until 1978, it was illegal for Native people to even openly observe their religious practices. Kids were still being herded off to Bureau of Indian Education schools that forced them to observe new religions and ways of life. Any resistance could get one branded as a Communist. Seeking to eschew the path the colonizers were trying to force them down, the original Occupiers hoped to highlight the longstanding culture of mistreatment. Still, few imagined the scene would attract as much attention as it ultimately did.

“When we took Alcatraz then, it’s not like people hadn’t been fighting prior to that,” War Jack told me. “It’s just that we we happened to be in the middle of the bay in international seas and had international attention immediately. And so we had hoped to be able to support other forms of resistance that were going on, because we’ve been up against it, well, since the genocide.”

Consistent with broader tendencies of the time, War Jack, who along with other Alcatraz leaders, such as Richard Oakes and John Trudell, spoke with the press and even published research papers and grant proposals during the occupation, never received the attention these others did for her leadership. “It was because the media sucked up to the patriarchy and went in that direction,” she said. “Women, we were still nonexistent because we’re on the bottom of the totem pole, which is why I went to get my doctorate degree in the first place. As Indian woman, we had absolutely no credibility, we just don’t exist, you know? They never acknowledged me because I’m invisible, I’m an Indian.”

On Monday morning—still known in many parts of the U.S. as “Columbus Day,” a holiday celebrating European colonizersa multi-tribal canoe collective will embark on a journey around Alcatraz. Their mission, organizer Julian Brave NoiseCat (Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen) said, is to “pick up the mantle” of the original Occupiers.

“What was so powerful about the original Occupation was that it was a moment of visibility; it was that sort of moment where Native people had a breakthrough on the national stage,” NoiseCat told me. “Luckily, we live in moments where activities and social movements are resurgent. You have things like Standing Rock; you have things like the ongoing campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s really exciting.”

The canoe journey was preceded by a feast Sunday evening and will be followed by a series of four talks, being held in collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the city’s public library system, and a host of others. The MOMA will also be publishing a special issue of its Open Space magazine, with contributors such as Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange, who penned the breakout 2018 novel and Pulitzer Prize finalist There, There.

These partnerships with Bay-Area institutions mark a shift in attempts to push through the veil of invisibility that continues to drape this land’s Indigenous peoples. Anti-establishment frustration naturally undergirded the midcentury protest movements. But where Native people were then shut out of society and the upper echelons of the political and media sectors, they now, though still underrepresented, have established at least a semblance of power in these areas. And for today’s demonstrators, getting Congress to adequately fund its Indian Country programs, or pay adequate attention to the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis means actively participating in the decolonization of establishment institutions.

“If we are going to become a real force in society in the 21st Century, if we are going to leverage our knowledge to take on big issues like massive inequality and climate change—which, I think, are subjects that Native people have so much to say about—we really need to have that kind of visibility and representation,” NoiseCat told me.

A canoe journey, on its own, will not suddenly enlighten the majority of Americans, nor will it bring about the end of Congress’s habit of breaking treaties. But it will provide a state-partnered and Native-led spotlight for the ongoing practice of Indigenous resistance. Set against the circumstances of the original Occupation of Alcatraz, that, in and of itself, represents historical progress worth commemorating.