The beacon flashed incessantly. On. Off. On again. Like some sort of traffic light gone crazy, it pierced the nighttime mist over San Francisco Bay, sending a message from Ghirardelli Square to Alcatraz Island five miles away. There, cheers erupted as the light flashed the words, "Go Indians!" It was the autumn of 1969. Thousands of American Indians occupied the abandoned remains of Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary that housed America's most notorious criminals until closing in 1963. LaNada Boyer inside one of the Alcatraz guard barracks where occupiers lived from 1969-71. Much of the graffiti from 30 years ago remains throughout the island today. Photo by Linda Sue Scott.The occupiers held the island for nearly eighteen months, from Nov. 20, 1969, until June 11, 1971, reclaiming it as Indian land and demanding fairness and respect for Indian peoples. They were an unlikely mix of Indian college activists, families with children fresh off reservations and urban dwellers disenchanted with what they called the U.S. government's economic, social and political neglect. Since well before Modoc and Hopi leaders were held at Alcatraz in the late 1800s, U.S. policy toward Indians had worsened, despite repeated pleas from American Indian leaders to honor treaties and tribal sovereignty. The occupation of Alcatraz was about human rights, the occupiers said. It was an effort to restore the dignity of the more than 554 American Indian nations in the United States. Historians and other experts say the occupation-though chaotic and laced with tragedy-improved conditions for the 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives alive today. "Alcatraz was a big enough symbol that for the first time this century Indians were taken seriously," says Vine Deloria Jr., a University of Colorado-Boulder law professor, philosopher, author and historian. Alcatraz changed everything. WANTING TO CHANGE THE WORLD LaNada Boyer, then LaNada Means, symbolized the festering discontent among the occupiers. As a child, she had bounced in and out of government boarding schools, often expelled for speaking out against the institutional conditions. At the University of California-Berkeley, she was once suspended for organizing a raucous student protest over the lack of ethnic sensitivity in academia. She was determined to change the world, and was among the first to set up an 18-month-long residence on Alcatraz, leaving it only for brief meetings in Washington and in Massachusetts with members of the Kennedy family. Thirty years later, Boyer says the work begun at Alcatraz is only beginning. On a late July day, she sips iced tea at the Truck Inn on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada. She and her daughter Jessica are on their way back to Berkeley. LaNada, who received a doctorate this year in political science, has been asked to lecture at the school that once ousted her. Her daughter wants to enroll there in journalism school. Journalists, Jessica believes, can change the world. Both agree that much work remains. They blame the legacy of European contact with American Indians for that. "We're all just remnants today, torn and scattered all over the place," LaNada Boyer says. That is why Alcatraz was so important, Boyer says-to rebuild Indian cultures and political alliances. Boyer was one of many who felt that way. The charismatic and eloquent Richard Oakes, a Mohawk from New York, became the occupiers' spokesman. "We hold The Rock," Oakes proclaimed one day during one of many press conferences. His words became a motto for the occupation. Others included Luwana Quitiquit, a Pomo/Modoc from northern California; Millie Ketcheshawno (Mvskoke); Ed Castillo (Luiseño/ Cahuilla); Shirley Guevara (Mono); John Whitefox (Choctaw); and thousands of others. Occupiers wanted more than just Alcatraz; they wanted to reclaim lives. They made many demands. Among them was Boyer's $299,424 grant proposal to turn Alcatraz into a cultural park and Indian social and education center. The federal government turned it down as too unrealistic. So the occupation continued.
GETTING THE GOVERNMENTS EAR More than 5,600 American Indians joined the occupation-some for all eighteen months and some for just part of a day. American Indians, like many people of color in that era, were fed up with the status quo. The annual household income of an American Indian family was $1,500-one-fourth the national average. Their life expectancy was 44 when other Americans could expect to reach 65. It was the '60s: Cesar Chavez ignited Chicano farmworkers, sparking a Hispanic civil rights movement that led to better wages and an end to stereotypes. Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, the Black Panthers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights movements among Blacks. Asian Americans in San Francisco also took to the streets, protesting discrimination in schools. Young White America protested the war in Vietnam and promoted a new culture of free-wheeling love and peaceful dissent. Many American Indians also felt the time was ripe to speak out once again, for the first time in a century. Not since Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Seath'tl and Manuelito had American Indians so thoroughly gotten Washington's ear. They did so without violence. "We were going to be a positive example for Indian people and show a positive face to the world," Fortunate Eagle said. Representing dozens of Indian nations around North America, the occupiers called themselves Indians of All Tribes. Earl Caldwell, then a reporter for the New York Times covering the Black movements, feared worse at the time. Caldwell was one of only two reporters on the scene of the 1968 assassination of King. Caldwell also had been covering the violent rise to prominence of the Black Panthers. "I got the call from New York to stop covering the Black Panthers and go to Alcatraz," Caldwell recalls. Dread, he says, swept over him. "I didn't know what to expect, except perhaps the worst." Alcatraz was different. Despite its chaos and factionalism, the event resulted in major benefits for American Indians. Years later, Brad Patterson, a top aide to President Richard Nixon, cited at least ten major policy and law shifts. They include passage of the Indian Self Determination and Education Act, revision of the Johnson O'Malley Act to better educate Indians, passage of the Indian Financing Act, passage of the Indian Health Act and the creation of an Assistant Interior Secretary post for Indian Affairs. Mount Adams was returned to the Yakama Nation in Washington state, and 48,000 acres of the Sacred Blue Lake lands were returned to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. During the occupation Nixon quietly signed papers rescinding Termination, a policy designed to end federal recognition of tribes. The events that led to the occupation began when the government abandoned Alcatraz in 1963, making an open question of what would become of the island. On March 8, 1964, a small group of Sioux attempted to take the island, invoking the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The treaty promised the Sioux surplus federal land, but it was clear that the Sioux had no ancestral claims as far west as San Francisco. They lasted a few hours on the island, singing and drumming, before U.S. Marshals ushered them off peacefully. They had made their point, though, and the idea of reclaiming Alcatraz as Indian land stuck in the minds of many. The U.S. policies of Relocation and Termination added to urban Indians' unrest. Under the Eisenhower Administration, the government launched an effort called Relocation to encourage American Indians to move away from tribal lands and into the cities, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs promised resettlement aid and job training. Relocatees were given one-way bus tickets, but many found inadequate housing and went unemployed for months. Simultaneously, the government's Termination policy sought to end the federal recognition of tribes, effectively nullifying treaties made more than a century earlier with tribal nations. Five years after the Sioux occupation, all this remained on the minds of Bay Area Indians. In October 1969, the San Francisco Indian Center, an anchor for displaced relocatees, had burned down. The Bay Area's Indians needed a new home. Attention began to focus, once again, on Alcatraz as Indian land. 'ENEMY OF THE STATE' Living on the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation in central Nevada's surreal mix of high desert and artificially lush farmland, Fortunate Eagle, now 70, revels in FBI records that he says label him an "enemy of the state." The files list him as a principal organizer of the occupation. Fortunate Eagle calls the label an "honor." "Indian lands were being drained. Indians were marked for destruction so that the government could take over the lands and the coal, oil, uranium, timber and water on them," Fortunate Eagle says. He points to his wife's own reservation, where the government took 26,000 acres of Paiute-Shoshone land without reparation in order to transform the sage-ridden desert into irrigated farmland. Two decades later, the 6,000-member tribe has won a $43 million settlement. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that, from 1952 to 1967, 200,000 American Indians were lured to cities such as Denver, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco with the promise of a better life. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, in contrast, forced only 89,000 people off their ancestral lands. Fortunate Eagle escaped Relocation, moving voluntarily from his Red Lake Chippewa home in Minnesota to be near his mother in the Bay Area. He expected to be drafted imminently into the Korean War. He never was, but stayed in San Francisco and launched his own business, the First American Termite Company. In doing so, Fortunate Eagle joined the Bay Area's middle-class. He was an urban Indian success, without the BIA's help. Fortunate Eagle drove a Cadillac, but never forgot his roots. He helped create the United Bay Area Council of American Indian Affairs, Inc., which had set up the San Francisco Indian Center. Social gatherings were frequent and drew together a hodgepodge of displaced Navajos, Tlingits, Plains and other peoples in a place where they could support each other. The center offered some solace, but by the late '60s many urban Indians were fed up with what they considered the BIA's false promises.