November 10, 2020

Occupy Alcatraz

From Marissa Leshnov's photo essay "In Liberation's Wake," 2019.

From Marissa Leshnov’s photo essay “In Liberation’s Wake,” Alcatraz Is Not an Island, 2019.

A little more than a year ago, I was part of an all-volunteer committee that brought an Indigenous canoe journey to Alcatraz Island to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 occupation by Indians of All Tribes, an activist collective advocating for Native rights and sovereignty. Eighteen canoes representing communities from as far north as Canada and as far west as Hawaii participated. In tandem with the journey, I moderated a four-part speaker series, “Alcatraz: An Unfinished Occupation” (co-hosted by five local arts and cultural institutions, including SFMOMA); and, with LaNada War Jack, a Shoshone-Bannock tribal member and co-leader of the original occupation, guest edited the thirteenth issue of the Open Space magazine. Alcatraz Is Not an Island reprised the words of Richard Oakes, a Mohawk ironworker and student activist who helped lead Indians of All Tribes. His full quote reads: “Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea.”

Oakes’ idea was that activists would reclaim Alcatraz Island, site of a former federal prison, as a symbol of Native American self-determination, rights, and sovereignty. (Like many Indian reservations, the occupiers joked, Alcatraz was pretty much uninhabitable.) The protest lasted nineteen months. At its height, over four hundred people were on the island. The movement might not have achieved all of its aims, but it catalyzed more legal, policy, and cultural changes for Native people than any effort before or since. While the protesters occupied the island, President Richard Nixon signed fifty-two legislative measures in support of Native American self-governance, increased the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget by 225%, doubled funding for Indian Health Service, and established an Office of Indian Water Rights. (This was the same man who ran on “law and order” and did that thing at the Watergate Hotel, mind you.) During the Nixon Administration, the United States shifted its official policy from tribal termination to self-determination — a change as significant for Native Americans as Civil Rights for African Americans.

Although logistics and not highfalutin theory were our first, second, and third priorities as a committee hosting a canoe journey, we weren’t without big ideas of our own. In an op-ed for The New York Times, I summarized the intention and outcomes of the project as follows: “For a day — or maybe even just a morning — the canoes made it possible to see Alcatraz as what it is for Native people: a symbol of our rights, resistance and persistence; an island reclaimed by our elders half a century ago; an idea, a story and a moment of organized action that bent the arc of justice in favor of the Indigenous.”

From Marissa Leshnov's photo essay "In Liberation's Wake," Alcatraz Is Not an Island, 2019.

From Marissa Leshnov’s photo essay “In Liberation’s Wake,” Alcatraz Is Not an Island, 2019.


Alcatraz Canoe Journey deployed a theory of change similar to other activist projects that use culture and symbols to catalyze progress and justice. This is hardly a new idea, particularly in the Bay Area where, since at least the 1960s, social movements have used culture to carry their message and further their aims. (Think: The United Farmworkers and grapes, the Black Panthers and leather jackets, and — of course — Indians of All Tribes and Alcatraz.) More recently in 2019, four homeless Black mothers, part of a group called Moms 4 Housing, laid claim to a property on Magnolia Street in West Oakland owned by a house-flipping company. While providing immediate housing relief to two women and their children, the house on Magnolia Street became a powerful symbol for the systemic, persistent inequities in the broader housing market. “This is a movement to recognize housing is a human right,” explained Dominique Walker, one of the mothers, when I interviewed her for The California Sunday Magazine. Moms 4 Housing received national attention in January when Alameda County sheriff’s deputies arrived in an armored vehicle, wielding assault rifles and a battering ram, and evicted the families.

Alcatraz Canoe Journey attracted the attention of dozens of local and national media outlets, bringing greater visibility to the historic occupation and Indians of All Tribes’ unfinished mission. Videos and photos published in The New York Times, The Guardian, and High Country News as well as Open Space celebrated and memorialized the beauty of the collective effort. Yet the project hasn’t had the staying power of Moms 4 Housing. Today, Alcatraz is once again seen by most as a former federal prison rather than the launching pad for the contemporary Native rights movement — which is how Native people view it.

To achieve enduring change, our project needs an afterlife: perhaps an organized base of support, like a community organization; or a more explicitly political demand for policy reform, like a social justice movement; or a more permanent platform from one of the institutions that hosted our speaker series, like SFMOMA. We need more than one day of action. We need a steady stream of programming in cultural institutions throughout the Bay Area and beyond. We need more stories and films to educate and inspire the public about this essential but forgotten chapter in our history. And we need a lasting and prominent presence on the island — a cultural center, like the one Indians of All Tribes envisioned. As you read these words, eighty-year-old Alcatraz veteran and canoe journey committee member, Eloy Martinez, continues his work to realize that vision.

The Alcatraz occupation launched a new era of Native American rights and activism. By honoring and carrying forward this history, we have the opportunity to fulfill Oakes’ idea — an idea that changed Indian Country, the United States, and the world. It is shameful that, more than fifty years on, even in the diverse and progressive Bay Area, the powers that be have yet to answer the Indians of All Tribes’ call.


Julian’s  previous contribution to the Open Space magazine was as guest editor and contributor for the publication’s thirteenth issue, Alcatraz Is Not an Island.

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