viernes, 20 de diciembre de 2013

The most significant event ever to happen on that Island!

The Indian Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 continues to be one of the most misunderstood and undervalued events of the modern civil rights movement.  And while most people today are only vaguely aware of what was inarguably the most significant event in the history of the American Indian political movement, the direct action of a handful of Native American students and others continues to have repercussions in Native American politics and in the modern civil rights movement.

The Alcatraz Takeover was the longest occupation of federal land by civilians in the nation’s history, and it spawned over 220 similar direct-action occupations across the country, including the takeover of BIA headquarters in Washington DC.  In the Indian Occupation of this lonely island are found the roots of the Occupy Movement, as well as many other direct-action events that have become part of the history of American civil rights activity.

photo D Ramey Logan

That a small island in the middle of a bay – a spot normally reserved for a lighthouse to keep both ships and bridges safe – should have attained such a position is unique in the nation’s history.  And the truth is that the Takeover was the most significant event in the history of Alcatraz Island itself.

Today, millions of tourists visit the Island, a huge fraction of that group drawn by the legends of American criminals.  Machine Gun Kelly.  Al Capone.  Birdman Robert Stroud.  And we may well ask why these anti-social criminals are celebrated to such a degree, while the brave and selfless action of political activists is largely ignored.  In the 32 pages of one of the publications of the GGNRA (the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an arm of the US Park Service), a scant four lines is reserved for the Indian Takeover – and not a single one of the occupiers is listed by name.  And there are more books about the prison’s inmates than about the small band of dedicated activists who came to Alcatraz to be free, and to help tens of thousands of others attain a measure of freedom previously untasted.
photo David Hakim

The Island is a sterile and forbidding place, where the only flowering things were weeds or plants in the gardens of the guards’ families.  And now hundreds of thousands of people come here to hear about the bogeymen of society – the robbers and killers, those deemed unfit for society, a ragtag group of miscreants from whom honest citizens needed to be kept safe.  Military buffs cross the water to see the cannons and fortifications.  Curiosity seekers come to look up at the guard towers where machine guns kept the peace, or peek through the clouded window of the morgue, or shudder at the thought of prisoners taking showers in a tiny cage in the psychiatric block.

The prison has become a place where the curious can vicariously experience the frisson of a brush with danger, a nearness to evil.  But how many people come to The Rock to learn about the political struggles of the last of a people decimated by technology and by a population of uncaring seekers after their own El Dorado?  How many people even know the profoundly important role this Island played in the American civil rights movement of the latter part of the 20th century?

photo David Hakim
No other event taking place on Alcatraz has had such potent or long-lasting effects as the seemingly capricious ‘invasion’ of a desolate island topped by a disused prison.  In all its history, Alcatraz was never host to a single moment of such import.  No great tomes were written there.  No transcendent music was composed there.  No treaties signed nor political strategies hatched.  No great persons born.  In point of fact, nothing except the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz ever happened on the Island ever caused the least stir in the larger world of literature, music, science or history.

The Takeover of 1969 was the Island's single vital event, the only happening potent enough to cause a stir from coast to coast and beyond, to alter a society that needed such change desperately – an event that continues to blossom in other movements, other struggles, other victories for oppressed people everywhere.

A Walk Through History

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century, the local indigenous peoples appear to have avoided the island, and may have believed it to be ensorcelled.  Some have maintained that Alcatraz was call ‘evil place’ for this reason , but it may be just as likely that, sitting in the midst of highly-changeable tides, Alcatraz was a spot that was easy to get dragged to by currents and difficult to get away from.

The local Indians (predominantly Ohlone in that area) have no records nor any legends passed down of important events associated with Alcatraz.

Though Spain conquered the Aztecs in 1519, it seems that it took them another 150 years to get around to completing their ‘conquest’ of Mexico and what would become the Southwest United States.  So apparently Alcatraz was first viewed by Europeans only in 1775, when Spanish sea captain Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed the San Carlos into the as-yet-unnamed San Francisco Bay and began the task of surveying and charting the waters he found therein.  Of the three islands that he identified on this earliest-known chart of the Bay, Ayala named the outgrowth of rock La Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans’) for the numerous pelicans that he saw there.  ‘Alcatraces’ is the plural of alcatraz (‘pelican’) in Spanish, which itself derives from the Arabic al-qatras, meaning ‘albatross.’

The next year, the Spanish began settlement of the Bay Area, indelibly marking the entire area by using as place-names the names of various Catholic saints. But no record of any important events on the Island are recorded during the era of Spanish occupation (ending in 1821), so it isn't unreasonable to assume that nothing of significance took place there.  Even then, it seems that almost 150 years all the truly significant events were taking place in other far-flung locales around the world – great music composed in Vienna and Salzburg, revolutions in New England and in France, advances in science and literature, wars fought on several continents.  Both the Age of Enlightenment and Napoleon’s rise to power and fall from lofty imperial height bypassed the sleepy shores of San Francisco Bay.  And on the rocky faces of Alcatraz, the seabirds huddled against chill winds and went about their lives under cloud-dotted skies.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Island came along with the rest of California into Mexican hands.  As there was nothing of value to be found there other than sea-bird guano, the island was ignored in favor of other places that held more potential for all kinds of exploitation.

One mention from Mexican days is found in the writings of French sea captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly. In his ship’s journal of August 1827, he wrote that they were “running past Alcatraces Island [which is] covered with a countless number of these birds [pelicans]. A gun fired over the feathered legions caused them to fly up in a great cloud and with a noise like a hurricane.” 

Mexico, too, largely ignored the big rocky outcropping a mile offshore of the densely-forested peninsula, since the prizes at that time were lumber, minerals, fresh water and game.  Of all the numerous events associated with the Bay during its Mexican years (1821 to 1848), nothing of importance happened on the Island – no wars fought on the hillsides, no events involving famous people in the sheltered clefts of its granite faces, no great music nor enduring literature written down for posterity in the damp winds slicing across its foggy heights. 

photo Centpacrr
By in the mid-1800s, foreigners had moved into Mexican California and looked to make their own fortunes this land of promise.  Governor Pio Pico granted a deed to Alcatraz to his friend William Workman, one of the owners of Rancho La Puente, in 1846 – just a few short years before gold would turn California into the destination of tens of thousands of treasure hunters.  Pico wanted a lighthouse, and granting the ‘useless island’ to his friend was a cheap way to accomplish that goal.

And though the Mexican-American War raged through 1846 and on into 1848, the Governor Pico was willing to make concessions to Americans living in his domain – especially to John C Fremont, who became acting Military Governor of California.  Fremont, who wanted to establish the Bear Flag Republic, wound up buying the Island for the US government from then-owner Francis Temple.

But it wasn’t until Mexico lost the war with the United States that real attention was turned on the almost-barren Island.  President Millard Fillmore signed an edict creating Alcatraz as a solely military reserve, taking absolute control of the rocky heights in order to protect the newly-Americanized San Francisco Bay from all intruders by means of cannon and soldiers.  And ironically, Washington later refused to pay Fremont for his role in securing the Island, resulting in major lawsuits prosecuted by his family for over 50 years – we may well wonder how Fremont felt to be treated exactly as hundreds of thousands of Native Americans had been and would continue to be treated. be continued... 

David Hakim is an internationally-published journalist and award-winning author who has run several newspapers – and recently received a commendation for his short story That Man in the London Aesthetica Competition.  He can be reached at dhakim at

 © 2013 Hakim - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: use without profit allowed only with author’s express written permission. Please don't make me wake up my attorney. Please.

miércoles, 18 de diciembre de 2013

White Warrior: Remembering Alcatraz…

“A chilly wind blows in from the Pacific as I stand on the island of Alcatraz looking out over San Francisco Bay.  Surrounding me is a movie crew, our cameras pointed toward the City hidden in mist. Before me, the fog and mist swirl around in early morning’s weak light, the sun trying to burn through the damp breezes on the Rock.  Standing in patchy sunlight, we wait for the fog to lift on the City.  The shifting air is alive with the cries of gulls and the clang of harbor buoys, the sad growl of distant fog horns.
“Behind us a tall park ranger smiles, telling a group of tourists about the Indian Occupation of the Island thirty-five years ago.  And when he mentions ‘the failure of the American Indian Movement,’ I am pierced by personal loss and sadness.  Now in my middle years I fight these old emotions, shocked at their power to still haunt me with the certain knowledge that so much more might have been accomplished.
“A lifetime has passed since I was a young Alcatraz warrior, and now I’m here on the Island again – but this time with a camera crew, shooting for a blockbuster movie that will soon be showing in theaters across the country.  And none of that – the camera crew, the shot list, tons of equipment brought to the Island in huge water taxis, the day’s work – seems important to me now, nor is the fat check I’ll receive for my part:  I want to just sit down, find a quiet spot down low, out of the wind, out of the cold… and think.  I want to go back, and find out where things changed, where the momentum was lost.  Where the energy drained out of my life.
“It’s a time of history and I’m at a moment in my life when that feeling is pretty pervasive anyway, but this loss is pointed, this hurt is focused on a specific time and place.  This is my personal story that slips away into the mists, into the whiteout that hovers around Alcatraz on this day, at this minute, for this heart and mind.  All my relations.”

*                        *                        *
Those words were written in the fall of 2004, in the midst of an emotional crisis that is not uncommon for people of a certain age.  Though I ended with the notation ‘all my relations,’ I had lost a connection to that ancient Native American prayer-closing – which evokes the deep wish for oneness and harmony in the Great Hoop of Life:  the spiritual dance that includes people and animals, birds and insects and plants, the wind and the waves… and even the rocks on which we stand.  Having slipped into the half of life that’s so much closer to death – and knowing that I would never achieve some of my early (or even later) dreams, nor become the hero I’d longed to be – I felt as though many years behind me had been wasted while I sat out the easy rains. 
Back in 1970, there were no thoughts of sitting out the easy rains.  We went where the Sirens called us.  I’d heard about the Takeover while in the midst of doubts about my place in the antiwar movement:  I felt far too protected by my student deferment.  Then the notion of fighting for ‘my people’ called to me, and I identified strongly with the goals of the Occupation – and the means of attaining those goals.  Direct action.
And what were those goals?  John Trudell said it best, in an interview with me late in 1970, after I’d been to the Rock several times:  “We want the Island, and we want full control over it.  We don’t want to share this control with any other people – we want Indian people to have it, because for too long we’ve been living with the Great White Father stereotype that is killing us; it’s destroying our people.  And we’re not going to stand by and see it happen.”
The three Indian Takeovers of Alcatraz were all more-or-less intended to bring to the American public the plight of Indians impoverished on reservations and in urban ghettos throughout America – direct action, meant to get attention and pressure a government that had for more than a hundred years broken promise after promise and had hardly changed its stance from the outright genocide that it had practiced not so very long before. 
The first Occupation, in March 1964 (called an ‘invasion’ by the papers), was intended specifically to be a publicity stunt loaded with a profound message.  A mixed-tribe delegation of about three dozen people (including attorney Elliot Leighton, Walter Means, Allen Cottier, Richard McKenzie, Mark Martinez, Garfield Spotted Elk, Adam Nordwall, and other prominent Bay Area Native American activists), sailed out to the Rock to present the caretaker with a demand for the Island under the provisions of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with the Sioux nation that allowed disused government land (mostly forts in the territories) to revert to Indian ownership.  That first ‘Takeover’ was a publicity event linked to both Termination and Relocation, two seemingly beneficent but actually disastrous federal programs to assimilate reservation Indians into mainstream society. 
By 1969, the Alcatraz torch had passed from the older group of activists to college students who had a more radical point of view (though the planning group included Nordwall, Earl Livermore and others who had been part of the 1964 Invasion), and the Takeover actions in November of that year were serious attempts to claim the land, while forcing the press to look behind the spectacle at the dire need for reform on the country’s reservations.  The first attempt on November 9 was mostly unsuccessful in establishing a real takeover, though fourteen Indian students[1] managed to get ashore in the November 10 attempt.[2]  On November 20, the students finally landed almost a hundred Indians on the Rock.
The Alcatraz Occupation, called “the most significant event in the history of US-American Indian relations in the post-reservation era,”[3] catalyzed many young Indians, giving them hope and showing them that they could gather and use direct action to build political power.  The Takeover[4] lasted from November 1969 to June 1971.  My time there comprised perhaps a dozen trips that lasted from overnight to a week in duration, with most of them four or five days.  Close to 18,000 Indians visited the Island during the nineteen months of the Alcatraz Occupation, along with maybe 1,000 White visitors.  At times I’ve almost deranged my mind trying to figure out which group I fall into – and after months of inner argument, I’m still not sure. 
It is interesting that the Indians chose to take over a place without a corollary in the world of virtually every tribe existing when Whites first landed on their shores – in their world, no tribe had a building where the punished miscreants were cut off from family, clan, or tribe.  And yet that is where we all wound up, stragglers like me who joined the several hundred who followed the original Council, who officially incorporated into ‘Indians of All Nations,’ and who unofficially took the name ‘Alcatraz Tribe’ and carried away with us the belongingness in that tribe.  All of us have the tribe into which we were born, and also have this created tribe, this called-together group of people who came to do a special job and sing a sacred song and dance a holy dance.
The Alcatraz group comprised numerous tribes, and many conflicting viewpoints on almost every subject under consideration.  This, of course, is a situation well-recognized in the world of US Indian affairs – there can be no single viewpoint, since all parties have a lance stuck in the ground to mark their positions.  And the successive Councils were adamantly democratic, and strove to operate without a single leader.  But there were spokespersons, pushed into the limelight by a press that demanded simple stories and needed to identify a leader.
Richard Oakes, a big handsome square-faced Mohawk with short unruly hair, was the first to be chosen by newspaper editors as ‘the leader’ (Joe Morris and other old-timers still call him a ‘Chief’).  Richard wasn’t a chief when he started – but perhaps became one as all chiefs do:  by leading well.  He stepped into the empty limelight to become the face of the Alcatraz Takeover – the American public seemed to love his ready smile – though the group refused to abandon its democratic experiment.  Richard could have been a successful elected representative, if he’d had the chance.  During his time as one of the spokespersons for the Takeover, Richard welcomed US Attorney Cecil Poole to Alcatraz, the first time in US history that such a meeting occurred.
Richard Oakes was in the hospital when I arrived the fourth time, which was in fact the second of my stays on the Island (I’d made a couple of runs to drop off goods at Pier 40 earlier in the year, but had not been allowed to go to the Island until April 1970, as Whites had been prohibited since January).  Some Samoans had laid a pool cue in Richard’s head, and over the course of a few weeks he had several surgeries in one of San Francisco General Hospital’s old brick buildings.  The rumor mill whispered that the FBI had paid those Samoans, but there was no proof of that. 
Going down to SF General to see Richard after the beating, I changed my mind at the last moment, deciding that it was useless to go inside since he was still in a coma.  That June night, I stood in the orange cone of a streetlamp’s glow, leaning on a solid brick wall near the hospital’s black iron fence, smoking hand-rolled tobacco and feeling less than solid myself.  In the cold summer mist, I shivered in my thin jacket and decided not to go inside, realising that his spirit would know I was there to support him.
Richard was never fully himself after the attack.  He worked to develop another political direct action activity, but he was killed in a controversial shooting in Northern California.
Lanada Means (now Dr Lanada Means War Jack, having taken back her family name) had long been involved in tribal politics in her home state of Idaho.  Her father had schooled her in civic action at Fort Hall, and she took this responsibility very seriously.  She had been part of some direct action projects at the University of California at Berkeley, and had worked with Lehman Brightman both in the founding of UNA (United Native Americans) and in the forming of the  first Native American studies program in the country.  And then came Alcatraz.  Lanada was one of the architects of the Takeover, and remained on the Island for the entire Occupation, hitching rides on boats to Berkeley and back several days a week so that she could complete her classes.  Without question, Lanada was one of the powerful personalities that held things together in those turbulent times, and she worked with other women on the Island to build a community that would create a new pan-tribal society that would last.
John Trudell had left the Navy intending to be an activist for Indian causes.  He soon after was fighting to lead the troops on the Island, his hawkish features handsome beneath his odd haircut – long on the sides and in back, with the top a short bristle, like the Mohican roach.  He would, by his natural gifts as a poet and storyteller, become the single spokesman for the group, since the news outlets insisted on putting him out in front and his work in radio had prepared him for his ‘Voice of Alcatraz’ program on a college public access station. 
One afternoon we sat in the guard’s apartment where John’s baby Wovoka had been born several months before.  While the infant’s pudgy fingers pulled John’s hair, the youthful leader’s aquiline face was animated as he talked into my tape recorder about the Alcatraz Takeover, about the Movement, about what it meant to be Indian in America at that time.  (Marlon Brando’s refusal of the Oscar for The Godfather was still three years in the future,[5] and no one could guess that turquoise jewelry would become all the rage in another few years.) 
At one point, John said, “Because over a hundred years ago, they set up schools, they set up policies for Indian people, during war conditions, while they were still ripping off our land.  And the policies haven’t stopped:  they still take our young away from us and send them to schools that don’t teach.  All of our people are the most uneducated people in the country, in the White Man’s education.”
Even now, hearing that tape makes me sad, for several generations of Indian youths have never gotten the education that John and others had hoped for them.  John had had high hopes, and had moved through byzantine pathways in his attempts to united divergent tribes.  He achieved the position of National Chairman of AIM (the American Indian Movement) before his wife and two other children were killed in a suspicious fire in Arthur Manning’s house in Duck Valley, Nevada.  Many, including John himself, still believe the FBI caused that fire as part of an ongoing strategy to silence attempts at public exposure of the Bureau’s abuses of AIM and Pine Ridge.  John had been warned against speaking on the steps of the FBI Building during a people’s march in Washington DC, and the fire occurred within twelve hours of that eloquent and volatile speech.  But the cause of the blaze may never be known, and others still take another view, holding the opinion that the arson was the work of political rivals within the Indian Movement.
The Takeover was not an AIM campaign, and many people still don’t know or understand that the American Indian Movement itself was not involved with planning or executing the Occupation.  But John became a nationally-recognized AIM leader because of his work at Alcatraz and elsewhere.  After learning his lessons in leadership on the Island, he achieved prominence throughout the country in a very short time and became AIM’s last national chairman, serving from 1974 to 1980. 
But for John, like many others, the Movement stalled after his family was killed.  The scores of murders on the reservations in the Seventies effectively stopped much of the Movement’s momentum.  He was a young man in his mid-thirties, but shattered by heartbreak.  John was – and is – an extraordinary man, but it would have taken more than ‘extraordinary’ to keep up the fight with that much tragedy to carry around.
*                                    *                                    *
I’d made those journeys to Alcatraz as a teenager, arrogant and rebellious, a middle-class university student trying on the revolutionary’s mantle.  About to turn nineteen and green in ways that I can hardly believe today, I still possessed more than a small fire in my belly and a profound sense of the injustice deeply rooted in our society.  A hard worker who could also comfortably talk to people in all walks of life, I had a number of skills – writer, ghostwriter, graphic artist, publicist, work-flow manager.  But I was still just a boy – one who thought he knew much more about the world than he actually did.
Though my grandmother was full-blood Akimel O’Odham (Pima Bajo), my biggest flaw was sporting my ‘Indianness’ in embarrassing ways – feathers in my hair and a habit of bringing my little quarter of Native American blood into conversations.  But my Indian blood was nothing in the minds of ‘rez’ Indians.  They’d grown up on reservations:  those poorest ghettos of America, administered by a backward and ineffective Bureau of Indian Affairs, where poverty and malnutrition were commonplace, and poor health and premature death were the expected norm.  Infant mortality, alcoholism, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and despair were then givens on most reservations at that time – as they still are.  The suicide rates did (and still do) attest to that fact.
By early 1970 many things had happened since the first group of students took the Island the previous November.  Many of the Indians on the Island – especially after the first couple of waves of students from California universities – came from the rez penniless, hitchhiking hundreds or thousands of miles to get there, feeling that anything was better than what they’d left behind.  They watched me with some suspicion.  Flaunting my tenuous connection to them like a scalp on my belt made me an object of sly ridicule until they finally shut me up completely by rejecting my attempts at tribal inclusion.  Even the ‘urbs’ (the urban Indians, frequently kept at arm’s length by the rez Indians for being city dwellers) viewed me with a certain and often open contempt.  There was a general prohibition of Whites on Alcatraz anyway, and the only reason I got out there at all that first time was that Indian Joe Morris saw something he liked in me.  
Joe was a middle-aged longshoreman, in rolled-up shirtsleeves and well-worn watch cap, who ran the Alcatraz Depot at Pier 40.  Joe’s position in the powerful Longshoreman’s Union assured that the Occupation was taken seriously – the Union threatened to close the Port if the Indians were removed from the Island.  He was clearly tough and able to stand on his own against all comers, but he readily showed me his gentle side.  “Come on in, son – you can put that stuff over here.  Must’ve had a long ride to get here.  Want some coffee?”
The memories are still fresh:  my first time standing on the deck of the boat that chopped the swells as it slid in to the Island’s dock, wind lifting my hair, the exhilaration at the sight of the place.  Though I was already in awe of our tiny presence in that moment of history, my first walk around the Island’s twenty-two acres was still an eye-opener.  The prison itself, built in 1935 to house the hardest convicts in the nation’s penitentiary system, was huge and quiet and spooky.  In its echoes you could feel the pain and loneliness of the thousands of lives that had passed between those walls before it closed in 1963.  Now the younger guys showed several of us newcomers the cells and the automatic doors and, just to test our mettle, locked us in and wouldn’t let us out for a while.  Much of what we found was unexpected, and though I had imagined in advance the prisonness of the place, I was still unnerved by the gun towers and the bars, the musty smells and the sense of gloom that hung over the buildings.  I did not expect the tidy gardens, the trees and plants, the quaint paths intended to give a sense of safety and normalcy to the families of the guards and employees.  I was surprised by China Alley, looking like some back street in Italy, and by the old Spanish-style Warden’s House, built by the Army in the 1800s, and by the Victorian Coast Guard Commandant’s residence.
Everywhere was the yellowish-white and sickly-green paint.  There were echoes in the huge rooms of the voices of men who had been caged because they couldn’t abide by the rules of ‘civilized’ society.  And now we found ourselves here, (I was for the moment comfortable to join with the young bucks in this), joking that the place was a palace compared to the rez.  And the people that we represented, the ones we spoke for, had so very little – so little that a disused prison was something to reach out and grab with both hands.  Of course, I had come from someplace completely different, but did my best to fit in, feeling the particular outrage that only the privileged can feel at the System crushing us all.
 After a while, we got used to the beards of grey mossy lint clinging to the walls and bars and the industrial screens of the cell blocks, got used to the dust swirling through the ugly blocks of the guards’ apartments, got used to the chilling wind that often seemed to be coming from all directions at once.  And later, we even became accustomed to the tomb-like quiet buildings, the hollow echoes, and the persistent feelings of sadness and despair that still cling like the wispy fog cloaking the Rock.
Off the Island, I drank with big John Mankiller and others down at Pat’s Place, but was not there the night the shaggy giant pulled the foot-rail off the bar with his peninsula-sized hands and belted some guy with it.  I smoked hash with the boys down in the dungeons, ‘hotboxing’ the low curved-ceiling brick rooms by shutting the doors so that the only air breathed was pungent with cannabis. 
While on the Rock, I worked in the infirmary with Ruth White Woman, a lovely long-haired elder with kindly eyes, whose gentleness made the tasks more pleasant.  When not carrying water and gathering wood, I joined work parties, trudging up and down the Island’s hills with food and necessities.  At the boats, we loaded and unloaded supplies.  As an almost anonymous part of the group (it is as hard for a White man to be anonymous among Indians as it is for an Indian to be anonymous among Whites – but no one was asking me to join in any conversation) I worked with the others to try to build something where nothing of ours had been before, eventually using the time in between to interview the group’s leaders while taking plenty of notes and photographs.  As time went on, I witnessed the meetings with corporate bigwigs who wanted to gain positive public perception by bringing their factories to the reservations (and reap the economic benefit promised by filling those factories with cheap labor).
My small portable tape machine recorded the words of John Trudell and La Nada Means and others, and I took hundreds of pictures, trying to document the whole Takeover in a few rolls of film.  I learned early on when to put the camera down and join the work.  (It says something of my luck that they decided I wasn’t an FBI informant; more than a few people were hurt after being marked as ‘narcs.’)  For almost thirty-nine years, those boxes of slides waited for me, as I searched sporadically for the potent images from my time at Alcatraz.  After my moment of clarity and doubt on the Island in 2004, I finally found about half of them in an attic, and they brought back strong memories of the adventure of salad days, now long gone.
With the interviews, those slides were the centerpiece of a show I presented back in Los Angeles in late 1970, using these ‘reports from the front’ to collect money and donations to bring to the Rock – I’d created a cycle of transaction, with myself as the bearer:  the givers felt they were doing some good in the world, and the receivers felt they were getting some of their own back.  I was called ‘the Come&go Guy,’ and I was appreciated (more or less) by both groups for making those transactions happen.
After late nights on the Rock, I’d awaken stiff and feeling dirty, longing for a shower, then remember where I was and that there was no running water, that a shower was hours or days away.  I’d traveled here alone and was with my ‘new friends,’ rez or urb Indians who’d grown up in the direst of poverty and now viewed the wealth of America with a mixture of disdain and desire.  Dirty and disheveled, they demanded a piece of the pie that had been denied them and their families for so long, and they were definitely willing to break the White Man’s laws to get it.  And me?  I’d already learned very well how exciting broken laws could be.
On those cold mornings, we’d step out of the commandeered guards’ quarters, seeing the City lapped in white fog, a ghostly apparition that emerged slightly, then faded, then reappeared briefly before disappearing as the fog brushed past, leaving my glasses spotted and wet.  We’d scrounge some food or coffee, then head down to the dock to wait for the first boat.  Once landing at Fisherman’s Wharf, stinking of sweat and firesmoke, we’d all trail into the yacht club, our notoriety making us a novelty to be tolerated.  Some measure of money-guilt worked to allow us to shower and clean up in the rich man’s turf – us, the local small-time celebrities.  Some boat-owners supported us in genuine good heart, while others were afraid of us, afraid to try (and fail) to control us.  They’d heard the rumors, heard that we were armed and dangerous, that we stashed guns in our vehicles and carried them on the Island.   
My compatriots were all too aware of these feelings among the ‘citizens,’ and they played on and to those fears, for they risked nothing at all.  Hell, we’d taken over an old decrepit prison, a place falling down and rusting out.  And if they came to take us, it would be to new prisons, with running water and electricity and three squares a day.  And how does that song go?  “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” 
*                                    *                                    *
Yesterday, on this last trip with the movie crew, I bought several books about Alcatraz, to try to recapture some memories of my time on the Island.  I talked to my friends about the feelings that the Rock is awakening in me.  I am having the oddest hallucination too, as if I’m on a boat.  Yesterday I stood on the silver roof of the Main Cellhouse, where I hadn’t stood since the days when arrows were fired at the tour boats that came too close to the Island (invading our ‘sovereign waters’), and I seemed to feel the whole rock-solid building swaying like a boat.  Later at home, I felt the swaying again.  And even now, sitting at my desk and typing these words, my body is swaying as if finding its center of gravity to keep from falling over with the pitch from the swells hitting the hull of the boat I am not on.
The wind and the sun worked on me for three straight days, and the body expends a lot of energy coping with the wind.  I’m sunburned and windburned, and my legs hurt from standing on the concrete walkways and the cement roofs.  But mostly, my heart hurts from the memories of what was – and what wasn’t.
*                                    *                                    *
The prison itself is a strange place – made stranger by the fact that it’s a tourist attraction now, where a thousand tourists a day pay the thirteen bucks to ride the boat over and back.  Many of them then pay for the audio tour headsets, or they buy some of the scores of books and magazines dedicated to ‘The Rock.’  Some folks are afraid of the prison, but I was always slightly benumbed by the ghosts there, the echoes of the cruelty of guards and of inmates, the whole specter of what had taken place there, of what humans can do to each other when they ignore that we are all sacred beings.  And who would know that better than descendants of the Great American Genocide, waged with programs that wove through the decades – programs as diverse as disease-laden blankets, Gatlin guns and cannon, extirpation of the buffalo, forced marches, deculturation, benign neglect, impoverishment through corruption and embezzlement, and finally Termination and Relocation.  Who better, indeed.  All my relations.
Yes, we are all sacred being, even the distorted among us.  The prison didn’t spook me, but the social situation was hard for me, at the end of the whip-saw, sometimes being accepted but often being pushed aside while trying to become part of the tribe.  I continued to gather donations and money for fuel to run the generator that powered the lighthouse, and I continued to try to give my ideas to a group I believed in but which often did not believe in me.  One amazing aspect of the whole experience is that I was completely ignorant of many of the crucial events taking place around me; I’d been imbrued with a non-Indian status that left me out of the politics, the agreements, the infighting – and the planning.  
So I showed up irregularly at Alcatraz – bearing gifts, speaking a different cultural language than the stragglers of an entire continent’s stragglers, who had come from the reservations and from poor urban areas.  Considered ‘White,’ I had only tenuous links with any of them.  But through it all, I turned my back on my own skills and inclination – I never wrote my story down (or, if I did, the now-forgotten papers were lost amid later adventures).  I never bit through the aching gums to release a bright sharp tooth that might create something other than an interesting story to tell people who’d only heard from a distance about the Takeover, people who will never never understand fully what went on there and what we did – and what it meant to us, to all of us.  And what we lost.
*                                    *                                    *
When Alcatraz fell to government agents on June 11, 1971, the longest occupation of federal property in US history ended.  Using the excuse of a maritime accident completely unconnected to Alcatraz or its lighthouse, federal authorities claimed the lighthouse as a strategic asset in maintaining the safety of the Bay.  A mixed group of US Marshals, FBI agents, and other tactical forces swooped in on boats with a single helicopter managing tactics at the time when most of the men had left the Island.  On that day, only fifteen people remained to defend the Rock – most of them women and children. 
After the end of the Alcatraz Takeover, Richard Oakes came back to the Movement, but was killed by a PG&E guard at a demonstration up on Pomo land in Northern California.  Alcatraz warriors, the alumni of a great educational experiment that succeeded even as it failed, spread out to carry the message and the fight to other communities, to other bands of fighters, to other battlegrounds.  The American Indian Movement caught fire and became to new gathering point – actually multiple moving targets that just about any Indian in the country could find and join.  AIM co-founder Dennis Banks, and Russell Means, AIM’s first national director, later wound up having their own troubles over Wounded Knee, South Dakota. 
Having learned that ‘occupation’ was an excellent PR strategy, Means and Banks led a group that occupied the Wounded Knee memorial site in 1973.  That occupation, which kept our War in the papers long after the fall of Alcatraz, focused on the trivialization of sacred lands, especially in South Dakota.  In 1975, two FBI agents were murdered at the Jumping Bull Ranch on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, in a situation that has been hotly debated on both sides for more than thirty-five years.  Leonard Peltier, who was never a major figure in AIM until that moment, went on the run after the Jumping Bull shootings, though he and many other reliable witnesses have maintained his innocence in connection with those deaths. 
In the troubled 70s, AIM followed its own troubled course, plagued by infighting, poor leadership, bad decisions, and a government intent on stopping its growth as quickly as possible.  It was the beginning of the end of the brightest fire of American Indian politics.  And a long end it was.
With most of the leaders of AIM harried by law enforcement agencies, and the rest under attack by the Reservation Police and GOONS (‘Guardians of the Oglala Nation’), the American Indian Movement died a slow death as a political force in the late 1970s. 
AIM’s potency and promise as a national organization was strangled by internecine fighting, the pettiness of the greedy, the constant pressure of the government, loss of emotional and political momentum, and the lack of clear victories to keep interest in the minds of a fickle public.  Perhaps more deadly was the simple ignorance of undereducated persons who could not trust educated ones.  The good and honest men and women who tried to save the Movement were hampered by the rest – even hampered by their own rank and file supporters, for lack of education means lack of competence, strategic skill, and the ability to frame and articulate a cogent argument for an often unwilling audience. 
Had the women been in charge, the Movement might have succeeded, for on the whole the women did more consistent work and carried more true responsibility than most of the men.  But history didn’t work out that way.  Of course, AIM still exists, and does good work in communities all over the country – but with the mainstreaming of its mission and work, AIM’s initial fire and fierce strength are things of the now-distant past.
But this failure, the end of AIM’s strength – was it really a defeat?  Alcatraz stands as the forerunner of many movements for indigenous and disenfranchised peoples, and our Occupation became the model for hundreds of other occupations, including a seven-day Takeover of the BIA Headquarters in Washington DC.  Without the brave sisters and brothers I followed out on the icy waters of the Bay, many of the social changes of the last four decades might not have taken place.  So – a failure?  I think history will be more fair than that, but it will take some perspective for the nation to see (and recognize) it.
*                                    *                                    *
I left the Alcatraz Takeover the last time at the end of 1970, heading back to school to cover my truancy with papers on the Occupation for my sociology and poli-sci classes.  Along the way to a respectable graduation, I collected more money to send back to Joe Morris and company for local Indian causes.  But my heart was still tender, and I needed something to help the pain I felt, for I could sense the course that events might soon take.  On the Island, I’d been ridiculed for my education; my ideas had been dismissed based on a very obvious reverse racism.  I had long before let go any thought of being a significant part of the battle, and had resigned myself to being the Come&go Guy, the bearer of goods, that outsider bringing in the guilt-gifts of privileged America.  And the fire inside me was dimming. 
So when the woman I would soon marry walked into my life, that wounded heart of mine almost jumped out of my body just to be closer to her.  Alcatraz had almost faded from my vision when the boats filled with gunslingers landed and the helicopter touched down to remove the last of the Warriors from the Island.  The Movement was slipping, and there were other causes calling us all.  Late in the Indian Spring of 1971, the Vietnam War still threatened a couple of generations, and my focus was pulled in several directions.
That moment of distraction changed the course of my life, and I lost something that I wouldn’t notice fully until all these years later – until I was standing on the roof of the Cellhouse in the midst of the crew of an expensive Hollywood movie, desperately trying to keep my balance.  And on that day, thirty-five years after my time on The Rock, it was as if a whole piece of my life had been swept away by the wind, and gone with it any witness to all that living, all that hard work, all that hopeful idealism.  Around me there was no one who knew what I meant when I spoke of those bright days of my past, and the brilliance that we had hoped to attain there.  And I heard Joe Morris’ voice, echo Ambrose Bierce:  “You were either there or you weren’t – if you were there, you don’t need the words, and if you weren’t there, then no amount of words will do.” 
In the grand events surrounding the Alcatraz Takeover, I’d been a very minor participant – an extra player, not very important in the whole scheme of things.  But that small walk-on part had been a crucial piece of my own life, giving me a perspective that shaped events for decades to come. 
 In the years that followed my involvement at Alcatraz, I became increasingly aware that I had dropped into the Movement for a short while and then had dropped out, encouraged to leave by many kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle messages from my comrades in the struggle and from the world that carried on beyond it as if the Movement did not exist.  I was well aware that the responsibility for each of my actions was mine alone, but life moves us swiftly on, and Alcatraz was soon just one more part of my crowded past.
*                                    *                                    *
At the 30th Anniversary celebration on the Island in 1999, they called for all the Alcatraz Warriors to come forward and be recognized, and I stepped up to take my honor.  Jackson Brown played that day and John Trudell spoke about the continuing struggle for all indigenous peoples.  John is older now, a kind of outlaw rock star, a man with a dedicated following.  His lost family is long behind him, and he has a new family – and he too is no longer the fiery young man he once was.  But in the place of that fierce young warrior is an elder, still fierce, a tough mature man, and he still sings the sacred song, still dances the holy dance – and the step is wider now, the words more informed, and the story is the record of all people oppressed by circumstance, a story we can all listen to and from which we might derive some wisdom and consolation.
On that Thanksgiving Day in 1999, the feelings hadn’t yet started to rise up in me:  the sunrise celebration kept my doubts away.  I had known for many years that John Trudell was right when he said, “And you can stereotype and call us lazy, and you can call us drunks, and you can call us ignorant – you can call us many things. And this society does it; they do it through movies and the films on TV and their books.  But we didn’t have any of that before the White Man came.  So it’s not that it’s an ingrained thing within our people, and yet your history books insinuate to our young that their people are inferior.” 
But then, a few years ago, listening to that tall friendly ranger while setting up to film the City across the water in the wind-scattered rain, the feelings came sparking up:  my participation in the great myth-spieling machine that is Hollywood, my small responsibility in the building (and the failure) of the Movement, my own seeming abandonment of the youthful ideals I’d once held, and the feelings of deep loss, of the passing of time and the terrible knowledge that it never comes back, that the dead are dead and that we will continue to walk with the memory of them in our hearts until we can no longer walk ourselves. 
Yes, years later on Alcatraz, a place of so much sorrow, I found my own loss… the hot-hearted youth that slipped away from me in the misty fog that shrouds that lonely Island.
*                                    *                                    *
I received my first vision on Alcatraz at nineteen, down in the ancient brick dungeons with peyote pressing at the backs of my eyeballs.  I still carry my medicine spot on the cheekbone, tattooed below my right eye.  I may have left the Movement, dissuaded from going to Wounded Knee, and I did let myself slip back into the White world.  I have lost some of the fire in my belly, but I am proud to have been – and to be yet – an Alcatraz Warrior.  I still keep the path clear before me, sharing what I have as a member of a tribe, a clan, living among the beings of the earth.
All my relations. 

#                                  #                                  #

[1]  Richard Oakes, Joe Bill, La Nada Means, John Whitefox, John Martell, David Leach, Jim Vaughn, Fred Shelton, Linda Arayando, Kay Many Horse, Ross Harden, Bernell Blindman, John Virgil, Rick Evening.  Most accounts recognize only these 14 students, but reliable witnesses assert that Jerry Hatch was and Al Miller were part of both the November 10 group and the November 20 group. 
[2] In most of the literature, these two events are considered a single action.
[3]  Alcatraz Is Not An Island, Millie Ketcheshawno, James Fortier & Jon Plutte, Turtle Island Productions, 2002.
[4]  The final – and ultimately successful – Takeover action of November 20 is the only event that will be called ‘the Takeover’ or ‘the Occupation’ in this book.
[5]  Brando, having come out to Alcatraz, had embraced the Native American cause.  To make the strongest possible statement, he spurned the Academy Awards Ceremony, sending in his place fledgling actress Satcheen Littlefeather to read a prepared statement about discrimination against Native American peoples by the US and the Hollywood film industry.  He was reviled, especially when Miss ‘Littlefeather’ turned out to be named Maria Cruz (and no one bothered to find out that ‘Cruz’ was a tribal name given by the Spaniards 500 years ago, nor asked why a Mexican woman would be considered a ‘fake Indian’ by the press, which also called Brando’s political statement a ‘stunt’) – but Brando’s public gesture did bring the plight of the Indians back into the spotlight, which is what he was seeking, after all.   

David Hakim is an internationally-published journalist and award-winning author who has run several newspapers – and recently received a commendation for his short story That Man in the London Aesthetica Competition.  He can be reached at dhakim at

 © 2013 Hakim - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: use without profit allowed only with author’s express written permission. Please don't make me wake up my attorney. Please.