Shortly before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy fumed that Americans didn’t know much if anything about Native Americans, aka Indians, who were largely invisible in their own country. They were “the least understood and most misunderstood Americans,” JFK explained. If the nation did not come to terms with the native past, he warned, “our treatment of the American Indian” would be “marked down for all time as a national disgrace.”
Never mind that the Kennedy administration, like the Eisenhower administration, treated American Indians disgracefully. JFK’s words were a presidential high-water mark when it came to expressing shame at what is arguably the darkest and least redeemable chapter in American history. Do the lives of American Indians matter? Do they matter to Americans who aren’t Indians, but who have watched Native Americans die again and again in movies and on TV?
From Chingachgook, Uncas and The Last of the Mohicans to Ishi—the last of the Yahi—American Indians have been celebrated when they’re depicted as doomed and on the brink of extinction. Theodora Kroeber made Ishi famous in her classic, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. The phrase, “The last wild Indian,” makes Ishi seem like he belongs to a subhuman species without a civilization, stowed behind glass in a museum. “There has been all the time, in the white American soul, a dual feeling about the Indian,” D.H. Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). “The desire to extirpate the Indian. And the contradictory desire to glorify him. Both are rampant still, today.”
Sixty years ago, when Pat Brown, a Democrat, and Ronald Reagan, a Republican, were the governors of the Golden State, Californians widely assumed that there were no more American Indians in California—that they had withered away or bleached themselves white. Still, California is the place where American Indians became visible again in a big way when they reentered public consciousness at the end of the ‘60s with the occupation of Alcatraz just months after the Woodstock festival of peace and love, and near the height of the counterculture when hippies thought they wanted to be American Indians and live in teepees and hold pow-wows. Some hippies trekked to New Mexico to live near American Indians, but the Indians didn’t want to be their best friends. There’s a world of difference between a real American Indian and a wanna-be American Indian.
The occupation of Alcatraz, which began on Nov. 20, 1969 and ended on June 11, 1971, made Native Americans better known and more visible than at any time since the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, when 300 Lakota men, women, and children were slaughtered on their reservation by U.S. troops. If there were a map of Indian landmarks, The Rock might appear as a stepping stone between Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims apparently landed, and Standing Rock in South Dakota, the site of the recent demonstrations to protect the land against big oil.
In 1969, nearly everyone in the U.S. took note of Alcatraz, from San Francisco and Sacramento to Oakland and the nation’s capital. “Get those Indians out of that prison or we’ll throw them in jail,” a caller from the White House told the author and Standing Rock Sioux, Vine Deloria Jr., who wrote the bestseller, Custer Died for Your Sins. Deloria called the quip from the White House “the funniest” that was spoken during the 19-month, 19-day takeover. American Indians pointed out that the island ideally suited their purposes. Like many reservations, The Rock had no running water and no amenities. It was isolated and forlorn.
White people might not have laughed, but American Indians did when they created, on the island, “A Bureau of Caucasian Affairs,” a spoof on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was known to Alcatraz occupiers as “Boss Indians Around.” Three white friends of the American Indians—Mary Crowley, Peter Bowen and Brooks Townes—also had a sense of humor. They dubbed their mini-armada “The Sausalito Indian Navy,” and brought nearly 100 American Indians to the island between 2 and 5 a.m. on Nov. 20.
The American Indian invasion and occupation of Alcatraz was an act of sheer desperation. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 specifically excluded Native Americans. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of American Indians were forcefully removed from reservations and dispatched to urban centers. Known as the “Policy of Termination” and also as the “Relocation Program,” it was yet another attempt to uproot Native Americans and push them around. American Indians were lodged in substandard housing in Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland, and provided with menial jobs.
The Relocation Program drove Native Americans into isolation and cut them off from friends, family, and fellow tribe members. The life expectancy for American Indians in the mid-1960s was 44 years. The average annual income was $1,500. Unemployment was 40%. Today, American Indians have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years shorter than all other Americans. They also die at higher rates than other Americans from chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, diabetes, assault, homicide, and suicide.
Alcatraz attained its reputation, not as sacred Native American ground, but first as a federal stockade and later as a prison during the Civil War. From 1934 to 1963, it was the “American Devil’s Island.” Today, it draws thousands of tourists annually who only know, dimly, of the American Indian invasion and occupation. Tourists come mainly to see the cells where gangsters like Al Capone were incarcerated. American Indians—Papagoes, Paiutes, Apaches, Shoshones, Hopis, and Modoc—were also prisoners on Alcatraz, locked up in cells, in solitary confinement and in the dungeons far below ground level, though the National Park Service doesn’t mention that part of the past.
When the 50th anniversary of the invasion and occupation of the island came around, it’s not surprising that American Indians wanted to honor it with an exhibit they called “Red Power.” It opened in November 2019, with ample help from an Alcatraz park ranger named Dr. Stephen Cote. Crowds arrived before the pandemic hit. Then the exhibit closed for months and only reopened in the summer of 2021, when it was deemed safe. It ends its run at the end of 2021.
I recently returned to Alcatraz as a guest of the National Park Service, which has operated the island since 1972. I went with two Native Americans: Alan Harrison, a Pomo and Modoc, who looks like he could play the part of an American Indian in a western; and Eloy Martinez, a Southern Ute, and a visionary now in his 80s, who doesn’t talk much about himself, but who has helped to make The Rock a very visible American Indian place ever since the end of the occupation.
Alan was 8 years old when he arrived on Alcatraz in 1969. “The occupation turned me into a radical,” he told me. “I remember the sense of urgency. We had to clean up our act, even us kids and take responsibility. A helicopter with machine guns flew overhead and we never knew if they would shoot us.”
Martinez fixed things on the island that didn’t work properly. He marched with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers in the Central Valley. For several years after the occupation, he was the director of the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. Recently, he lobbied for an annual “Indians of All Tribes Day” on The Rock and persuaded the National Park Service to approve the idea. Now, he envisions a Native American museum on the island.
Harrison, Martinez, and I went to The Rock on a ferry from San Francisco, with the German-born photographer Ilka Hartmann, who has spent much of her life taking pictures of American Indians, Black Panthers and Berkeley radicals. “I feel the weight of history here,” Hartmann told me when we arrived on The Rock. Growing up in the aftermath of World War II, she learned from her mother, who was a historian, about the brutal wars against American Indians. “She told me that whites scalped Indians and were paid $3 for each one,” Ilka remembered. “In school in Germany, teachers told us about the persecution of the Jews and other minorities. This was before the term ‘Holocaust’ was used. Later, some of us made the connection between the genocide against the Jews and genocide against the Indians.”
During the windy morning I spent on Alcatraz, with the cries of seagulls in the background, and old Native American slogans still painted on walls, it was impossible not to feel the weight of history that’s etched into The Rock. Has anything changed since the early 1960s when Kennedy made his remarks about the invisibility of American Indians? Sometimes it does not seem so, though Native Americans have called attention to their plight again and again. This year, the U.S. Senate confirmed Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo, to head the Department of the Interior. Moreover, President Biden also recently nominated Chuck Sams, a Cayuse and Walla Walla, to lead the National Park Service. If approved he would be the first American Indian in that position.
America has a lot of catching up to do. At the start of the Alcatraz occupation in November 1969, “the Indians of all Tribes” issued a “Proclamation” that called for “an American Indian Museum” that “would show the noble and tragic events of Indian history” including “the Trail of Tears” and “the Massacre at Wounded Knee.” The proclamation also noted that the island could serve as “a Center for Native American Studies,” an “American Indian Spiritual Center,” an “Indian Center of Ecology,” and a “Great Indian Training School.” None of those suggestions was translated into reality, though Native Americans like Martinez and Harrison haven’t forgotten them.
Portions of American Indian history and culture are exhibited in the “New Industries Building” on Alcatraz. There are American Indian comic books and drawings by the renowned Native American artist Earl Livermore, a Black Foot, which he made on Alcatraz during the occupation. Larger-than-life photos by Ilka Hartmann and Stephen Shames portray the American Indians who took part in the event. The photos are so large that they had to be transported from the mainland to the island by barge. They make up the biggest and most dramatic part of the exhibit. There’s also a slideshow of images by Brooks Townes that were taken in the first nine days of the occupation.
Old newspaper and magazine clippings and Native American LPs collected by archivist Kent Blansett tell riveting stories. I was drawn to the December 1972 cover of Ramparts magazine that depicts LaNada Boyer Means (now LaNada War Jack), a Shoshone-Bannock. She was a visible, loud spokesperson on the island. Spray-painted on a wall in red letters are the words, “Better Red than Dead,” perhaps more meaningful 50 years ago, when Americans worried about Russian bombs and nuclear holocaust, and when some Americans insisted it was better to be dead than alive and under Moscow’s thumb.
In an essay titled “Alcatraz Is Not an Island,” Richard Oakes, a Mohawk and the male leader of the occupation, describes his eye-opening, cross-continental journey when he visited reservations and “saw the different conditions under which the tribes lived.” In fact, in the late 1960s, many American Indians had to learn about themselves and their own history. Alcatraz was a “great awakening,” Adam Fortunate Eagle, a Red Lake Chippewa, exclaims in Heart of the Rock, which he wrote with San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tim Findley. That book was published 30 years after federal marshals removed the last of the holdouts: men, women and children.
In the crowd of Native Americans on Alcatraz, Richard Oakes was among the most flamboyant. Unlike John Trudell, who was the “Voice of Radio Alcatraz,” and whose son was born on the island, Oakes never made it to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where a new generation of Indian warriors—Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and Leonard Peltier—withstood an armed assault by law enforcement agents on the Oglala Sioux reservation. In 1972, Oakes was shot and killed in Northern California by a man known to be a white supremacist.
Banks and Means are dead. Peltier has been in prison since the early 1970s. His trial resulted in a verdict of guilty for the murder of two FBI agents he insists he did not commit. Peltier does not say that he’s “doing time,” but rather that “time does him,” which strikes me as a very American Indian way of putting it.
While Alcatraz the penitentiary speaks to the American nightmare of crime, criminals, and barbaric punishments, the American Indian invasion and occupation of The Rock speaks to a dream of freedom and dignity. If the U.S. is a nation that sometimes honors the best of its citizens, then it makes sense for Alcatraz to become a permanent home for the “Indians of All Tribes.” Before that happens, however, American citizens would have to let go of much of the cultural baggage they have carried for centuries.
Growing up on Long Island in the 1950s, near the Shinnecock Nation, I heard white kids in school say, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and it troubled me when I saw white men kill America Indians in the movies. When I read about Standing Rock, I remembered the Native American who taught at the same college where I taught and who told me, “We never were conquered.” I thought he was just bragging, taunting. Now I don’t think so.
Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.