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.