Graffiti as History

Vandalism normally is bad for historic sites.  It is destructive and illegal, especially when done on federal property.  So why does the National Park Service protect Native American graffiti on Alcatraz Island?

When Alcatraz Island became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, the NPS assumed responsibility for preserving and interpreting all of the island’s history.  Although most of the island’s nearly 1.5 million yearly visitors come to learn about the prison, the island is also an important site for recognizing the struggle for Native American rights.

Once the government closed the prison in 1963 it became surplus federal property.  In March 1964 a small group of Sioux claimed the island for their own.  This occupation lasted only four hours and left a precedent for the protests that followed.  On November 1969 a much larger group of urban Native American activists lead by Richard Oakes seized the island.  Because they represented many different tribes, they adopted the name “Indians of All Tribes” and claimed the island to establish a Native American cultural center and university [1].  Occupying the island awakened the American public to the injustices suffered by Native Americans:

 Before we took Alcatraz, people in San Francisco didn’t even know that Indians were alive, and if that’s a sample of what the local people knew, considering that this is the main relocation point for Indians through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then there were people across the nation who never even knew that Indians were alive or even knew our problems.  They never knew anything about our suicide rate that is ten times the national average, or our education level that is to the fifth grade.  Alcatraz focused on the Indian people.  Now the Indian people have a chance for the first time to say what they have to say and to make decisions about themselves, which has never happened before [2].

Although the government forced the last activists to leave the island in June 1971, the occupation lead to the emergence of a pan-Native American Red Power movement and other protests and occupations and contributed to reforms in government policy.

Why is the Native American graffiti on Alcatraz so important?  Most of the island’s visitors are unaware of the island’s place in Native American history.  “Most people don’t know anything about our history here,” said one activist who lived on the island during the occupation. “They just come over here to get their pictures taken next to Al Capone’s cell [3].”

Graffiti left lasting physical evidence of the Native American occupation.  The occupiers used it to claim the island by spelling out declarations of Native American sovereignty, welcoming others to join them, and painting raised red fists on prison buildings [4].  One of the most prominent examples of this graffiti was painted on the prison’s water tower in red letters four and five feet high: “PEACE AND FREEDOM WELCOME TO THE HOME OF THE FREE INDIAN LAND [5].”

When the NPS restored the water tower last year after it had become a safety hazard (and much of the message had also faded away), they had to repaint the tower with moisture resistant paint that covered the original message.  Before doing this, they painstakingly documented the original graffiti and then invited Richard Oakes’ descendants and other Native Americans to retrace the message.  “We restored it because it has social significance,” said Marcus Koenen, the island’s NPS supervisor.  “It is a part of what this park is all about. [6]”

Because the water tower is one of the island’s most prominent structures, recreating the graffiti on it preserves a vital part of the island’s history.  It is one of the first things visitors see and immediately reminds them that the island was once “INDIAN LAND.”  Restoring the graffiti makes this history more prominent and has prompted additional reflection on the island’s significance for Native American activism [7].

A sign in the jail on Alcatraz in San Francisco, California, fining those seen making graffiti on the property.   The National Park service has recently restored the grafitti the American Indians had placed on the landmark water tank on Alcatraz during their 60's occupation. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

[1] http://www.nps.gov/alca/historyculture/we-hold-the-rock.htm

[2] Indians of All Tribes, “Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz,” in Great Documents in American History, eds. Wayne Moquin and Charles van Doren, 376.

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/25/us/alcatraz-american-indian-occupation-graffiti-preserved.html?_r=1&

[4] Ibid; http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/alca/exb/Indian/Grafitti/Goga-2438aSS.html

[5] http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Alcatraz-pays-tribute-to-Indian-occupation-4191169.php#photo-4029615

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/25/us/alcatraz-american-indian-occupation-graffiti-preserved.html?_r=1&

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