Alcatraz, The Birthplace of the Native American Red Power Movement

Alcatraz Island is located 188 miles from my home in northern California. As a child, I visited the site a few times on school field trips, and have since been twice as an adult. Each time I was there I had a positive experience learning about the history of the island as a prison. What I never learned was the historical context of Native Americans and the island. In fact, when I Googled Alcatraz recently, the top five auto-responses were prison, island, escape, ghost, and tours. As with my education regarding the island, Native Americans are not present.

The predominant, or white, history of Alcatraz was that in 1775 a Spanish explorer, Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala, discovered the island.[1] Once gold was discovered in California, in 1848, the population in the San Francisco Bay Area grew rapidly, creating a military need.[2] During this time the United States claimed the land from what was then, independent Mexico.[3] The military used the island as a base until it was converted into a prison in 1934.[4] The prison was closed for financial reasons and abandoned in 1963, thus becoming surplus federal land.[5]

Native Americans and the Annexation of Alcatraz, 1969, courtesy of Civil Rights in the 1960s
Native Americans and the Annexation of Alcatraz, 1969, courtesy of Civil Rights in the 1960s

The expanded history is that in 1964 Allen Cottier took forty Native Americans to the island. Upon arrival, the group released a statement of request to buy Alcatraz for forty-seven cents per acre, roughly $10, and the same price California offered per acre of land to Native Americans over the last century.[6] Unfortunately, the group was not prepared to be on the island long-term and left shortly after arriving, without reaching their goal. On November 20, 1969, Ed Castillo, a member of the Juaneno tribe and a professor of Native American Studies at UCLA, led a small group of Native Americans to the island, by boat, at night.[7] Within twenty-four hours the group had grown to seventy-eight, and in the course of the nineteen-month annexation, upwards of 200 Native Americans visited the island in protest.[8] They were “young people whom the education system neglected, and increasingly, they desired for themselves the same opportunities others had.”[9] The annexation of Alcatraz in 1969 was the “birthplace of the American Indian Red Power movement.”[10]

Native Americans and the Annexation of Alcatraz, 1969, courtesy of Civil Rights in the 1960s
Native Americans and the Annexation of Alcatraz, 1969, courtesy of Civil Rights in the 1960s

While on Alcatraz, the group, Indians of All Tribes (IAT), authored a press release outlining their concerns about the treatment of Native Americans by the United States. The statement read: “we have no government for our own people and we live under what is really a colonial system because we do not select the people who govern us.”[11] Native Americans were watching Civil Rights Movements emerge all around them and they wanted to use this time to gain a larger voice in the struggle. Alcatraz was a pivotal moment in which people from many tribes and from all over the country came together in the fight for cultural, economic, and social equality. They didn’t want to “melt with the melting pot” in the current college system, essentially being whitewashed when they graduated.[12]

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, novelist Sherman Alexie narrates the story of a young boy determined to change his circumstances and create a better life for himself. It is his understanding that if he stays on the reservation on which he has been raised, he will perpetuate the cycle of poverty. He ultimately desires a white education, exactly what the occupiers of Alcatraz were fighting against. They didn’t want “to go through the university machinery, coming out white-oriented.”[13] However, the protagonist in this story sees no other way out. The release of this book was roughly thirty-five years after the annexation of Alcatraz, and highlights the struggle that still exists today.

Alcatraz Island, Courtesy of the SF State Bay Area Television Archives
Alcatraz Island, Courtesy of the SF State Bay Area Television Archives

The Red Power Movement was a very important historical movement. Native Americans “needed attention brought to [their] people, and [they] needed a place to get together in the city so that [they] didn’t become victims of assimilation.”[14] But what was the outcome of this important movement? From all appearances, not much has changed since the 60s regarding relations between the United States and Native Americans. This is depicted well in Alexie’s book. The relationship is still strained and Native Americans continue to be disenfranchised today, despite all their efforts. The question then becomes, how can we ensure our children are taught the real history of Alcatraz, in an effort to bring light to the continued oppression of Native Americans?

[1] Alcatraz Island, National Park Service, Last Modified April 2, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/the-post-on-alcatraces.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alcatraz Island, National Park Service, Last Modified April 2, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/us-penitentiary-alcatraz.htm

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee”, Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior (The New Press, 1996), 10.

[7] Smith & Warrior, “Like a Hurricane”, 2.

[8] Smith & Warrior, “Like a Hurricane”, 5.

[9] Smith & Warrior, “Like a Hurricane”, 3.

[10]Alcatraz Island, National Park Service, Last Modified April 2, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/index.htm

[11] “Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz,” in Great Documents in American Indian History, edited by Wayne Moquin and Charles van Doren (Da Capo, 1995), 378.

[12] Moquin & Van Doren, “Planning Grant Proposal”, 377.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

14 thoughts on “Alcatraz, The Birthplace of the Native American Red Power Movement

  1. Melissa, I’ve had a similar experience to you in that I grew up learning about Alcatraz and have visited it before, but don’t remembering hearing the Native American aspect of its history. I’m glad you wrote about this history, and it was interesting to learn about how it connected to contemporary civil rights movements. You also make a great point about Junior wanting the exact thing – a white education – that the Alcatraz occupiers were fighting against. This was the only way he could see to find his way off the reservation, even if it meant making a great sacrifice.

  2. Great post Melissa! I had absolutely no idea that this had even happened at Alcatraz, which is definitely, as you pointed out, indicative of a much larger absence of Native American representation. I really liked your comparison of the Proposal and Alexie’s book, something I had not thought about in terms of education. But your point that these two reading were several decades apart, yet struggle with the same issues highlights just how little progress has been made.

  3. The fact that this bit of history is not very well-known leads me to believe that it was not seen as significant or important as the Civil Rights Acts of the early 1960’s. This is terribly sad and a disservice to our society and Native Americans who need to be heard. Museums should tell this story and use it as a jumping off point to discuss and combat the struggle of the modern day Native American.

  4. This is an excellent post, Melissa! The information you provided about Alcatraz is exactly the type of work we need to do in museums. We must work to find the stories of oppressed and mistreated people and cultures and make sure that these stories are no longer ignored. Something that shocks and saddens me is that there was a Red Power movement in the 60s and I have also never heard about it. There were several important movements in the 60s, or inspired by the movements of the 60s. however, it is clear that they do not all receive the same amount of attention from schools or museums. As a society, we cannot continue to ignore Native Americans and their important historical movements and events.

  5. I’ve heard of the Alcatraz occupation before, as well as the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973, but I’d never read the document the occupiers issued. It’s a very powerful statement, especially how it says all they want is to govern themselves, retain their identity, and be allowed the same chance to succeed that others have. I do wonder why they chose Alcatraz, though…is that site cultural significant to Native Americans? Or was it just a matter of high visibility?

    I do disagree that not much has changed since the 1960s. Native Americans still face the problems of racism, poverty, alcoholism, violence, and disenfranchisement, as illustrated in Sherman Alexie’s novel. But I do think there has been some progress made. There is a greater emphasis on Native American history and culture in school curriculums; several significant laws have been passed,including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act; Native American writers, actors, and politicians have achieved wide recognition; and there’s an increased awareness of issues affecting indigenous peoples. There’s still a long way to go, but I think there’s been a lot of progress since the Alcatraz occupation. The fact that we’re even talking about these issues is a step forward.

    1. I really appreciate your insight, Emily! You raise some very good points. I am encouraged to discuss this topic more in class today.

  6. Like majority of our classmates, I have not heard of the Native American elements of the island’s history. All I know is about the prison. I think this brings up a great question for historic properties. How can we tell the whole story of the property? Most people goes to Alcatraz for the prison. I wonder if certain areas like the area in the picture that shows Indian welcome could be used to discuss the Native American annexation. I assume it isn’t there anymore?

    Everything is a balance in historic property. What time to portray and such. I feel like Alcatraz could be twice as interesting if it shows a difference in use.

    I also do disagree the idea that not much has changed. I think that some could argue representation of Native Americans has started to grow in a positive light. We have authors like Sherman Alexies writing. Representation needs to increase but it started.

  7. The first time I heard about the Native American Power Movement and occupation of Alcatraz was in my History of the US in the 60’s course. I did not learn all the details about the occupation and this is fascinating to me. I also agree with Melissa that not all civil rights movements have been fair representation. In fact many issues that Native Americans face and are struggling against are not discussed. Even more frustrating is that their contributions to movements for educational opportunities, an end to federal negligence to the basic rights, protests about the general welfare of Native Americans on the reservations, and their history of disenfranchisement and cultural oppression are not discussed in schools and historical institutions. To this day they suffer from colonization and American greed. They may continue to not have a voice in society unless more people like Sherman Alexi and the Native American Movement have access to the media, literature, educational opportunities, and the public to share their experiences and stories. Governmental, educational, and cultural institutions need to support them in telling their stories and giving them a voice in society.

  8. Melissa, thank you for your post and I liked how you contrasted the Red Movement’s demands with the reality of Junior’s educational situation. It speaks to the diversity of experience for Native Americans in the United States. If you and Meghan have been to Alcatraz and didn’t even know that these events occurred, that is very telling of how little this important piece of history has been told. I agree with Matt that the museum at Alcatraz should be thinking about how to tell this story since this occurred on their historical site.

    EDIT: They do list on their website that Alcatraz is the birthplace of the Red Power Movement and discuss the Native American occupation in the “History” section of their website, which is good. http://www.parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/alcatraz.html

    1. Thanks for the edit, Carly! I actually got most of my citations from the National Parks Service website (as you see, haha, darn my memory to write Ibid!). I was surprised to see that they talked about this since it was never part of the tour. However, in all fairness, it has been over five years since I have been on a tour so things definitely could have changed. I may just be a little behind the times!

  9. Melissa, this is a really great post. The most interesting part to me, which other people have pointed out, is that the path to liberation for the Alcatraz activists and for Junior were entirely at odds. This reminds me that perhaps it’s important not to treat the Native community as monolithic, a mistake I often make. For me, since I have little familiarity with contemporary Native issues, it’s difficult to know how to talk about the subject. Thank you for educating me about this history.

  10. Melissa, I really enjoyed how you connected this reading to Sherman Alexie’s. I had not previously made such a connection beyond the general themes of Native American struggles since European contact. I have also visited there and never heard this occupation story until this week. It serves as a powerful reminder of how rarely Native American stories are told and contextualized in the US.

  11. Great post, Melissa! I really enjoyed the comparison of Sherman Alexie’s readings to the demands. I was also reminded, much like Miranda, that Native Peoples are not all monolithic, and though they have shared many culturally significant moments or have similar stories, not all people are the same. It reminds me of the chapter of Sherman Alexie’s novel, during the Grandmother’s funeral, when the white man came to return a pow-wow dress to the Spokane Reservation, not realizing that the outfit had probably been from the Sioux.
    I think Americans need more education on contemporary Native American issues, and issues beyond the sports teams (though, I mean come on. Its 2015, enough with the racists sports teams… I’m looking at you North Dakota) and issues that are causing problems for Native Americans today.

  12. Like so many others, I had never heard of either the movement nor the occupation of Alcatraz, even though I have taken several courses and have visited multiple institutions that discuss Native American heritage. It seems to me that there is a general struggle in American society with both celebrating cultural groups along with individuals, as well as not solely attributing negative stereotypes to groups. I would like to see how museums could tackle all of these issues to foster greater understanding and acceptance.

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