Pacific Postcards

We Hold This Rock (Josh H)

The United States in the mid-twentieth century was a time of change for many communities. The Civil Rights movement was happening, as was the Women’s Rights movement. With the second World War over with, it was a time where the people of the country were able to focus less on global issues and more on the internal ones that have been affecting the country for decades, even centuries. From 1969 to 1971, eighty-nine Native Americans, led by Richard Oakes, occupied San Francisco’s Alcatraz. Days earlier, on November 9th, Richard would present a document to the press called the Alcatraz Proclamation. The Alcatraz Proclamation would not only address the mistreatment of Native Americans, but also mock the U.S.’s history of assimilation.  

The San Francisco Native American community had grown over time by the time 1969 arrived. However, since they only made up around 0.1% of the San Francisco population, they realized the importance of supporting one another. San Francisco’s American Indian Center became a place for many who were new to the area looking for work or housing.  However, on October 28, 1969, under mysterious circumstances, the AIC building caught fire. With an important part of the community gone, many were wondering where to build another, with their minds set on Alcatraz Island, which closed in 1963. While it seems like a strange choice, the island technically belonged to the people according to a loophole in the Treaty of Fort Laramie from 1868, stating that any federal land considered surplus could be claimed by Native Americans.  

 Seeing the land as their own, the group known as “Indians of All Tribes” arrived on Alcatraz on November 9th, 1969. While the occupation only lasted one day, Richard Oakes presented news reporters with the Alcatraz Proclamation, claiming ownership through discovery of the island and offering twenty-four dollars for the land, which was more than the white explorers paid for Manhattan centuries before. While the group was taken off of the island by the authorities, this would only be the beginning of a bigger conversation. 

Oakes states that the island is now theirs, as they have claimed it by discovery. This idea of discovery is a major theme in the creation of America, after all, Christopher Columbus did “discover” the United States in 1492. But Oakes continues on, stating that “We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our lifeways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state.” (paragraph 1). Here Richard mentions how the United States has treated the native people as children, in need of guidance. This idea of a “white savior” has always been part of America’s nationalism. Their goal being to influence – or rather, assimilate – many into the American culture. 

It was this nationalism that forced many children into boarding schools. In his article, The Occupation of Alcatraz Island, Troy Johnson talks about how “U.S. Army captain Richard H. Pratt held that ‘the only good Indian is a dead one...All the Indian race should be dead. Kill the Indian and save the man.’” (page 6, paragraph 2). With Pratt as one of the pioneers of Indian Boarding Schools, it’s clear that his intentions were to assimilate Native American culture from the people, as if being native was some sort of “disease”. By 1956, the U.S. enforced the Indian Relocation Act, which encouraged many young men to leave their reservations and come to the big cities across the nation, one being San Francisco. However, assimilation did not come easy, as many of these men didn’t have networks to guide them in their new environments and were met by racism instead. As Johnson explains, “Native Americans daily had to fight stereotypes of paint, headdresses, military battle, inability to handle ‘fire water’,..” (page 25, paragraph 2). Constant harassment in the city which led many people from different and sometimes even rival tribes to come together and support each other. This would lead to the creation of Indians of All Tribes. 

Richard Oakes continues on in his proclamation, this time comparing the defunct Alcatraz Island to many Indian Reservations. He states that “It has no fresh running water...There is no industry and so unemployment is very great...” (paragraph 2, lines 2 & 5). For being a land of opportunities, the U.S. made it hard for Native Americans to get jobs on the reservation. As a matter of fact, Radio Free Alcatraz host John Trudell shared this sentiment, saying “...we would work from sun up till sundown for six dollars a day...forty-two dollars at the end of a seven-day week...” (9:05). The search for employment was another factor into moving away from the tribe, however many would still have trouble becoming employed in the city. In regards to the water, this has been an ongoing problem on reservations. Contaminated water has caused many to become sick, and even led to a couple deaths in the past century due to gastric cancer in the past century. So while the government were able to get many Native Americans off of the reservation, this wouldn’t solve any issues that were still on them.  

Near the end of his proclamation, Richard began talking about what the group planned on doing on Alcatraz. He mentions that this would become a place to celebrate Native American culture. Schools will be built, medical centers, spiritual centers, and a museum of everything that the people have contributed to the world. When describing the museum, he also mentions that it will “...remain a dungeon to symbolize both those Indian captives who were incarcerated for challenging white authority, and those who were imprisoned on reservations.” (paragraph 10). This idea of being constrained on reservations is something that has been studied by many people over the years. In Borderlands in a World at Sea, David Chang talks about the Round Valley Reservation in California, where “Methodist minister J.L. Burchard trued to enforce a strict border control policy...Indians could leave only with a pass. He deemed Indians who left by other means to be ‘escaping’, and he had them pursued.” (page 390, paragraph 3). Johnson talks about native views on the reservations as well, that “According to Native Americans, the failure of the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] to recognize their independence tended to generate feelings of paternalism and dependency, which damaged Indian culture and its strengths.” (page 23, paragraph 3). Both of these quotes show how not only were the reservations created to control and keep tribes on their assigned land, but how frustrated the Native community was with their relationship with the government. The idea of wanting to break free but not having the strength to support themselves made it hard for those on reservations to be able to do much, like being employed, like creating cleaner water systems, leaving them stuck between a rock and a hard place.  

While this was only the beginning of the Alcatraz Occupation to come days later, it was also the beginning of the Red Power Movement in the United States. It would inspire many other natives to become active in the indigenous rights movement, beginning what would become known as the “Alcatraz Red Power Movement”. This would lead to the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973 and the Longest Walk of 1978, in which several hundred people marched from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Throughout the seventies, there was a lot more pride within many Native Americans, rejecting assimilation and embracing their culture even more. The United States passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975, which helped native tribes have control over their own education. While it didn’t fix the termination policies from decades earlier, it was a step in the right direction. 

Through the Alcatraz Proclamation, Richard Oakes was able to bring tribal issues to the public eye, as well as openly mock the methods of assimilation the United States has tried to enforce over the years. It also shows why it is important to stand up for yourself, especially in times when we are facing difficult situations. The displacement of many young men was meant to dismantle tribes, but only created strong bonds between the tribes and helped the Native American people become proud of who they were. While Native American history was full of violence and injustices, it is a history that has not been forgotten.  



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