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By right of discovery

(Spring 1998)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self Determination & the Rise of Indian Activism
Troy R. Johnson
University of Illinois Press, 1996, 273 pages $17.95

ON NOVEMBER 20, 1969, 89 American Indians occupied Alcatraz Island, a craggy rock located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay that once was the site of a notorious federal prison. Most were college students from Indian tribes from around the country who had relocated to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. They called themselves “Indians of All Tribes.”

Several days before the occupation, the new organization had met to plan the occupation at a makeshift Indian Center in San Francisco (the old San Francisco American Indian Center had recently burned down), and they came up with a proclamation that carried a serious but bitingly funny message:

To the Great White Father and All his People:

We, the native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty: We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for 24 dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, an precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 dollars in trade goods for these sixteen acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we offer that land values have risen over the years. Our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the 47¢ per acre the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land.

Then the proclamation took another bitterly sarcastic turn:

We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable as an Indian reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations, in that:

  1. – It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
  2. – It has no fresh running water.
  3. – The sanitation facilities are inadequate.
  4. – There are no oil or mineral rights.
  5. – There is no industry and so unemployment is very great.
  6. – There are no health care facilities.
  7. – The soil is rocky and unproductive and the land does not support game.
  8. – There are no educational facilities.
  9. – The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent on others.

This brilliantly sums up the history of the conquest and oppression of American Indians. Troy Johnson’s The Occupation of Alcatraz gives us a well-written and sympathetic blow-by-blow account of the occupation, as well as a section where he lets various participants talk about their experiences.

A wave of land takovers

The 19-month occupation involved hundreds of activists. And though it failed to win Indian control of Alcatraz, it sparked off a wave of more than 70 property takovers by Indians nationwide that lasted into the mid-1970s. There had been previous Indian struggles, but most had been local and tribal in nature. The Alcatraz occupation launched a pan-Indian “Red Power” movement that sought to unite all Indians to fight for treaty rights; land, water and fishing rights; and the right to more government monies under Indian control. The American Indian Movement (AIM) – the most famous of the radical Indian organizations – was one of the most important offshoots of the Alcatraz occupation.

The movement was fueled by two trends. One was the U.S. government’s policy of “termination” in the 1950s, in which Indian tribal reservations were officially terminated by the U.S. government, conveniently freeing up the land for exploitation by the government and various business interests. (This policy, by the way, was carried out by the same man who presided over the Second World War internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps.) Thousands of Indians were forced to look for work in cities across the country like San Francisco, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. There they faced poverty, job discrimination and police harassment. In Minneapolis, for example, Indians were 10 percent of the city’s population, but 70 percent of the city’s jail inmates!

The new urban environment put Indian students and workers into a situation in which they could more easily see themselves as Indians, rather than Apache, Lakota or Cherokee. Young urban Indians – especially young college students – became radicalized by the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights and Black Power movements.

The occupation got widespread support – including financial – from students, unions and even celebrities. Significant is this diary entry from one of the occupiers, Stella Leach, a Colville/Sioux:

... it is surprising how much support that we are getting from more of the working class man. Of course, now all of the unions have come in to back us, and the map up there, a map of all the unions that are participating now, fund raising for us, and if they do that all over the United States and in Canada, and Alaska, and clear down to Mexico City; it’s the longshoremen in Mexico City, the national local there. People are supporting us all over now.

Unfortunately, Johnson gives us no further account of working-class support for the occupation, or what form it took.

Many of the participants in the occupation were Indians from poor and working-class backgrounds – like San Francisco State student Richard Oakes, the first “spokesperson” of the occupation, a Mohawk who had worked for 10 years as a “high steel” worker on skyscrapers and bridges across the country. Joseph Morris, a Blackfoot Indian and member of the Longshoremen’s Union, organized the logistics of getting supplies stored at Pier 40 and transferred to the Island.

Indian self-determination

Though many participants were workers, and though unions gave support to the occupation, the movement’s politics were more influenced by student radicalism than by class politics – the need for Indian self-determination, and for the development of some kind of Indian national or cultural identity.

The difficulty of sustaining an occupation on a rocky island without proper living space or fresh water and food led to infighting and conflicts between activists on the island – a problem compounded by the laxness of the operation, which allowed serious activists as well as drug-dealers onto the island. In the end, the occupation fizzled, as the government stalled and waited for the occupation’s size to dwindle to a handful of people. Only then did police and federal agents move in and put an end to it. But Alcatraz sparked a new movement, and so could be marked as a great success even if it failed in making Alcatraz Indian land.

The only problem with Johnson’s book is his strange reverence for Richard Nixon. “I hope,” he remarks, “that this book begins the process of recognition and pays the proper respect for Nixon’s contribution to American Indian People.” Johnson cites in defense of Nixon his return, for example, of the sacred Taos Blue Lake area in New Mexico to the Pueblo Indians. Johnson here is softened in his attitude to Nixon by the fact that Nixon apparently personally held Indians in high regard. (Though the same can’t be said for his attitude to Blacks or Jews!)

Setting aside for a moment Nixon’s role in devastating Vietnam, the Nixon Administration’s final offer to the Alcatraz Indian activists was a gross insult. Nixon’s negotiators proposed that Alcatraz become an Indian theme park, staffed by Indians under the auspices of the park service – a plan that had in fact already been proposed by the park service before the occupation. Under no circumstances was Nixon about to give Alcatraz to a bunch of Indian activists – it might set a dangerous precedent.

This aside, Johnson’s book is well worth reading for bringing to light an often overlooked but important chapter in the struggles of the 1960s.

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