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
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.
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.
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.
...to 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 earthlink.net
Posed Perfectly in Dreams: 15 bucks for trade edition & $30 for the numbered copies (signed by author, the editor, and by Andrei Rozen, producer of the surrealish cover photo). Author will inscribe each copy. Add 3 bucks for mail. To order, please email to cinesource(at)earthlink.net
They thought I had guts but they had it all wrong. I was only frightened of more important things. ~ Charles Bukowski
Those of us for whom the most extravagant promises have become a reality, are, I think, required to seek appropriate expression of their gratitude.
~ Sol Linowitz, American Ambassador
"We will cross our bridges when we come to them And burn them behind us." ~ 'Cump' Sherman, on his way to the beach
"I'll burn that bridge when I come to it." ~ Jodha Nasrudin
Life does not demand more strength than we possess.
Only one thing is possible: not to have run away.
~ Dag Hammerskjold
We may not find things to our likin’ – but we’re gonna dang sure find somethin’ we ain’t seen today.