Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

November 20, 1969: Indians Claim Alcatraz

On November 20, 1969, All Tribes of the Native Nations occupied the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. The taking of the former state penitentiary (the one that once held down gangster Al Capone and the notorious “Birdman,” famous for escaping it) was a major awareness-raising event, illuminating the treatment and near-extinction of Native people in the US. Issues like land theft and other deceptions served to Americans were in process of being clarified for all of us by members of the Native Nations: the Indians had longer-term plans to establish a culture center on the Rock, but federal authorities ultimately ended the peaceful occupation—with force—after a 19-month stand. Today, the former prison operates as a museum; it is presently hosting an art installation of work by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, with reference to the island’s Native American protest past)

Among those who heard the call to gather in 1969 was John Trudell (Santee Sioux) who served as a broadcaster, the Voice of Alcatraz. Radio Free Alcatraz reached the airwaves daily via KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles (the Pacifica radio network). “He is extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous,” says the note in Trudell’s FBI file. In 1979, Trudell lost his wife, his three children and his mother-in-law in a mysterious house fire. The event was a turning point toward his life as a poet, musician and actor; miraculously his spirit remains outspoken and free.

Deborah Iyall (Cowlitz) was just a teenager at the time of the occupation: She ran away from her childhood home (with her mother’s blessing) to join the protestors on Alcatraz. “I remember a song this woman Oona taught me at the powwow… I felt like I had these little nuggets and culture to hang on to.” Iyall remained on the Rock for a few foggy and cold nights before returning home, but her introduction to a creative Native person helped shape her own identity as a professional visual artist, poet and musician (Iyall recorded and toured as the frontwoman of Romeo Void and remains a solo artist. Read more on the lives of Debora Iyall, the work of John Trudell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and other artists inspired by the American Indian Movement in Keep on Pushing).

The anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation, the annual sunrise Thanksgiving Day ceremony there, the team sports protests and the ongoing violation of Indian lands made it an Indian news-filled week here in Nor Cal, but then, here in the US, everyday is an opportunity to remember what the Indian people sacrificed for US and to say thank you for their land which the rest of us occupy.

Thanks to Mary Jean Robertson—host of Voices of the Native Nation, broadcasting every second, third, and fourth Wednesday of the month on KPOO—for bringing the news to Natives and their allies. Last night she played the above clip by Redbone, released in 1970 at the height of the occupation, with footage collected from more recent sunrise ceremonies. 

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Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Buffy Sainte-Marie, California, Environmental Justice, income disparity, , , , ,

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