On Nov. 20, 1969, more than 70 Native Americans gathered before dawn on a dock in San Francisco Bay. They boarded three boats and sailed from the small, foggy harbor in Sausalito, Calif., to Alcatraz Island. They intended to make landfall on territory belonging to the United States government with the intent of claiming it for themselves. Or reclaiming it, depending on your point of view.
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.
Like many such direct actions, it was both practical and improbable. Previous attempts to occupy the island had been made by Native American activists, who cited provisions in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which said that unused federal lands could be open to claims by certain Native Americans. Alcatraz had been categorized as surplus land by the United States government, sitting unused since the prison there was closed in 1963. After the San Francisco American Indian Center had burned down, and the community needed a new place to gather, Oakes and Nordwall put forward the idea of another occupation. The Rock, they thought, would make a perfect replacement for the destroyed Indian center.
It’s hardly surprising that the logistics didn’t go particularly well; quite tragically, Oakes’ young daughter fell and died during it. But the symbolism is tremendously important.
Native people are America’s most visible invisible minority. 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. Native people are met as myth in the mind or not at all.
One of the most durable myths that shapes the thinking about us is that we began living lives of untrammeled freedom and complete autonomy in the Nearctic garden and we fundamentally ended as people when the frontier was closed — that North America begins with Indians and America truly begins once we’re gone.
This thinking was best expressed on the first page of Dee Brown’s 1970 best seller, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” He writes that the latter half of the 19th century was “an incredible era of violence, greed, audacity, sentimentality, undirected exuberance, and an almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it. During that time the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.”
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.
Those myths stand in counterpoint and contrast to the earlier ones of our demise and largely center on the leaders of Native resistance. In these new myths, people like Dennis Banks and Russell Means and Clyde Bellecourt emerge as freedom fighters who selflessly gave themselves to the struggle for Indian people and won. If Chief Joseph was captured, Dennis Banks never was (he did, however, turn himself in). 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 Pochantas’s father in the Disney cartoon of her life). Neither the premature stories of our collective death nor the tales of the selfless heroism are totally true. But suspended between those two narratives is Alcatraz.
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. For a year and a half, they loved and suffered, starved and partied, painted slogans and formed councils. They were idealistic and in despair. They fought, and they played. They were hopeless, and they were charting some kind of course toward a better future. They were focused, and their energy was dissipated in endless feuds. They appeared on the nightly news, and they were completely forgotten.
And in all of that I find, I see, a kind of profound glory: They dared to be Indian and human. It is there, on that carved rock, that truly modern Native Americans can be said to have begun.
Richard Oakes is a completely forgotten about figure in American history except by Native Americans themselves. At least until now. I want to highly recommend the recent biography by Oakes written by my good friend Kent Blansett. Oakes is someone you need to know, someone as important to the history of radicalism in the era as Stokely Carmichael or Shulamith Firestone or Corky Gonzales or Fred Hampton. But because even on the left we barely talk about contemporary Native history, he is basically unknown in 2019.
The Alcatraz occupation fueled a new political awakening popularly known as “Red Power.” This pivotal demonstration led to the passage of more than 26 pieces of self-determination legislation and Supreme Court decisions that enhanced the sovereign powers of native nations.
Today, as we celebrate the sacrifice of all indigenous rights movement veterans who risked everything to provide Indian country with greater freedoms, we are reminded that a true democracy is an experiment; it must constantly be tested and reinvented to preserve its most sacred values — truth, liberty, equality and justice. Throughout American history, the power of protest has preserved freedom, and the takeover of Alcatraz Island represents one of the largest and most significant demonstrations for indigenous rights in the 20th century, trying to ensure that these values apply to all.
The Alcatraz takeover began with student-led strikes advocating for the creation of Ethnic Studies departments at San Francisco State College (SFSC) and the University of California at Berkeley. After hundreds of arrests and bloody confrontations with police, the student strikers won, leading to the creation of the first Ethnic Studies programs in the country. In 1969, SFSC hired Akwesasne Mohawk citizen Richard Oakes, and at Berkeley, Fort Hall Shoshone/Bannock citizen LaNada Means also helped establish Native American Studies. Native students from both campuses connected and formed a new organization — Indians of All Tribes.
In October of the group’s first semester in existence, the San Francisco Indian Center, which supported over 40,000 native peoples throughout the Bay Area, was destroyed by fire. The Indian center served as a major hub for job placement, powwows, youth programming, housing, health and wellness assistance, and dozens of other services.
It was a devastating loss for San Francisco residents. Inspired by the strikes, the loss of the Indian Center and Belva Cottier — a SFSC community adviser and Lakota citizen — Oakes and Means organized a takeover of Alcatraz Island that brought students and the indigenous community together to protest what they believed to be unjust federal policies toward native peoples.
Again, buy his book!