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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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.
In San Bernardino, California,
John Trudell was among them. He considered himself a college
dropout in 1969, staying in school just enough to collect on
the GI Bill. Trudell-a singer, songwriter, actor and activist-felt
the downward pull of political, emotional and cultural stagnation
in the Native American community.
"If you wanted to make it
in America as an Indian, you had to become a hollow person and
let them (the government and White American society) remold you,"
says Trudell, a Santee Sioux. He felt he had begun to fall into
the mold-and then Alcatraz happened. "Alcatraz put me back
into my community and helped me remember who I am. It was a rekindling
of the spirit. Alcatraz made it easier for us to remember who
When he heard about the occupation,
Trudell, then 23, packed a sleeping bag and headed to San Francisco.
He became the voice of Radio Free Alcatraz, a pirate station
that broadcast from the island with the help of local stations.
When he hit the airwaves, the response was often overwhelming.
Boxes of food and money poured in from everywhere-from rock groups
such as The Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival (who
staged a concert on a boat off Alcatraz and then donated the
boat), Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, city politicians and everyday
Trudell and his wife, Lou, had
the only baby born on the island during the occupation. The couple
hailed their new son as a symbolic rebirth of an earlier Indian
movement. They named him Wovoka, after the 19th-century Paiute
who introduced the Ghost Dance and the prophecy that North America
would be returned to Indians.
In 1969, Ketcheshawno also was
among the disenchanted. A graduate of the Haskell Boarding School
in Kansas, Ketcheshawno arrived in San Francisco a decade earlier.
She was 21 in 1958, newly trained in "commercial procedures:"
typing, shorthand and use of the Dictaphone. Fourteen former
classmates came with her to California. It was their first time
living off a reservation. They spent their first few months jobless
and lost. "There were always seven or eight of us that traveled
the city together for protection and support-like a mother hen
and a bunch of chicks," she says.
Ketcheshawno eventually became
an office worker, but her heart sought social work. She met Fortunate
Eagle in the early 1960s and began working with him and others
to set up Indian social service programs.
Much of the
Alcatraz graffiti turned the tables on history with phrases carrying
bitter irony. Photos by Michelle Vignes.
On October 10, 1969, when the Indian Center
burned down, social work had been evolving into Indian activism.
Protests at college campuses were becoming more frequent. Coincidentally
that year, the San Francisco City Council had been entertaining
all sorts of proposals for Alcatraz. Among them was one drafted
by Fortunate Eagle, Ketcheshawno and others to turn Alcatraz
into an American Indian center. After the fire, the proposal
became urgent. But controversy over Texas millionaire Lamar Hunt's
desire to turn Alcatraz into a commercial venue overshadowed
With no options left, "we
all decided November 9 would be the day we would all go out and
just stay until they gave us the island," Ketcheshawno says.
Meanwhile, Oakes and other college
students also had been thinking about taking the island. Oakes
and Fortunate Eagle, who knew of each other, met for the first
time at the home of San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tim Findley
for a Halloween party in 1969. Findley, a former VISTA worker,
had a penchant for throwing parties that mixed together people
who otherwise would never hang out together, such as journalists
and politicians, middle-class businessmen and college activists.
The pair led an ill-fated attempt
on Alcatraz on November 9, 1969. Nearly a hundred Bay Area Indians
showed up at Pier 39, prepared to take the island. Only, the
boats failed to show up. Oakes and others took turns reading
a lengthy proclamation, which claimed Alcatraz by right of "discovery"
and offered to buy it for $24 in glass beads and red cloth. Meanwhile,
Fortunate Eagle, in full traditional regalia, rounded up a Canadian
sailboat, the Monte Cristo. Its skipper, Ronald Craig, agreed
to take seventy-five on a symbolic cruise around the island.
Halfway through the cruise, an impatient Oakes peeled off his
shirt and shouted, "Let's get it on!" Then, Oakes dove
overboard, followed by several others. Craig pulled away to thwart
more jumpers. The tide pulled the swimmers away from the island,
and the Coast Guard had to rescue them from the frigid, choppy
waters. Joe Bill, an Alaska Native familiar with the sea, waited
until the boat reached the opposite side of the island. Then
he dove overboard, letting the tide pull him ashore. The Coast
Guard plucked Bill off the rocky beach.
That same night, fourteen of the
activists, still reveling in the day's excitement, persuaded
local fishermen to take them back to the island, according to
Boyer. They spent the night on the island. Fortunate Eagle and
a handful of others, who say that they had ridden on the boat
to the island, returned to the mainland rather than stay. The
caretaker returned the next day to find the fourteen romping
with his fierce-looking, but surprisingly friendly, guard dog.
The Coast Guard delivered them to stern-faced U.S. Marshals at
But none were prosecuted. "The
fact was, everybody was going out of their way for them,"
said Findley, who not only covered the occupation, but helped
it along by rounding up boats for the successful invasion later
that month. "Everyone wanted to see them succeed."
After the fiascos of Nov. 9, the college students distanced themselves
from Fortunate Eagle, determined to do things their own way.
The real invasion took place on
November 20, 1969. At about 2 a.m., nearly eighty American Indians
from more than twenty tribes pulled up to the island's eastern
shore in three boats that Findley had secured through his friend
Peter Bowman, of the No Name Bar. The bar was a local hangout
for journalists and other so-called "intellectuals,"
and Bowman agreed to take the Indians to the island after he
got off work after midnight. Findley rode over with them to cover
the landing. When they stepped ashore, the group's noisy cheers
awakened Alcatraz's only caretaker, Glenn Dodson, who-claiming
to be one-eighth Cherokee-offered them the deserted three-story
On November 20, Fortunate Eagle
was attending an Indian education conference out of town. Boyer
says that date was chosen because Fortunate Eagle would be away.
She said the college students had always been distrustful of
Fortunate Eagle because of his age and his middle-class status
in the White man's world.
Unfazed by their distrust and the
political divisions, Fortunate Eagle, who never lived on the
island, continued working on the mainland on behalf of the cause-drumming
up food, money and political support for the island's occupants.
"Look at it from my perspective,"
Fortunate Eagle says today. "I had a lot more to lose (than
college students did) back then. I had a family, a house, a business.
And, yet, I stuck with it." Alcatraz had become a powerful
political symbol of the need for Indian self-determination, and
Fortunate Eagle and the others were determined in their own separate
ways to keep the symbol alive.
Many who lived on the island described
life there as near anarchy, as numerous factions tried to carve
out their own versions of Indian utopia. Others saw the occupation
as an escape from life and held constant parties fueled by drugs
and alcohol smuggled past the volunteer security force.
On January 3, 1970, Oakes' 12-year-old
daughter Yvonne died in a three-story fall inside the warden's
house. Oakes soon left Alcatraz amid criticism that the island's
own system of government had gotten too lax. A council of island
residents, including Boyer and Oakes, made many of the decisions.
But power struggles were common, according to many of the veterans;
free speech and dissent were strongly encouraged.
(A few years later, Oakes died
tragically when a YMCA camp security guard shot him during an
argument involving some Indian youths. Oakes had intervened,
trying to settle the argument, when the guard-who said he suspected
Oakes was reaching for a gun in his jacket-shot Oakes, according
to various sources.)
By the final two weeks of the occupation,
the Indians of Alcatraz had gotten little of what they had demanded,
especially the island itself. Although, a leading faction turned
down an offer to take control of nearby Fort Mason in exchange
for leaving Alcatraz. Following that refusal, frustrated White
House officials were determined to get the Indians off the island
at almost any cost. Some officials even proposed an armed invasion.
Nixon aides quickly dismissed the latter as too damaging to Republicans.
A fire, not political unrest, signaled
the end of the occupation. On June 1, 1971, four historical buildings
on the island went up in flames. Because the buildings were far
apart from each other, occupiers concluded that government agents
had set the fires to discredit the occupation. Government leaders
shot back that rowdy occupiers had set the fires.
Officials increased calls to remove
the occupiers. Alcatraz, one said, had become an "island
Most of the occupiers began to
leave on their own, anxious to return to schools and jobs. Only
fourteen remained on June 11, 1971, when U.S. Marshals in three-piece
suits arrived to reclaim the island.
After the occupation, Trudell became one of the American Indian
Movement's most vocal and militant leaders, helping organize
the February 1973 armed occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota,
and the takeover of BIA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Since then, he has mellowed considerably.
Of the AIM activities, Trudell says, "We would have been
better saying, 'We're Native and humble,' rather than, 'We're
Native and militant.' Genocide often is a result of out-of-control
pride and militancy."
Like Trudell, Wilma Mankiller emerged
to prominence out of Alcatraz. She became principal chief of
the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in the 1980s and one of the most
powerful and popular American Indian leaders this century. In
1969, Mankiller was a 23-year-old Bay Area housewife when she
visited the island. Mankiller says that the occupation "gave
me the sense that anything was possible."
"It was idealistic, and the
generosity of the spirit of the people proved that we could change
anything. Who I am and how I governed was influenced by Alcatraz.
The way I viewed dissent was totally influenced by Alcatraz.
People on the island were very strong about freedom of speech,
freedom of dissent. I saw the importance of dissent in government."
John Whitefox did not emerge to
prominence. But he was among the final fourteen removed from
Alcatraz. Thirty years later, Whitefox, a Choctaw from Oklahoma,
wears a rumpled Army jacket as he collects bridge tolls for CalTrans,
the California transportation authority. At age 46, strands of
gray hair poke out from under a worn-out baseball cap.
At 16, he had stopped in San Francisco
on his way to Seattle, chasing a girlfriend, when Alcatraz became
a more potent lure.
It was more than a broken heart
that brought Whitefox to Alcatraz, however. Like many American
Indians, Whitefox felt lost on a reservation experiencing an
exodus to the cities.
veteran John Whitefox (Choctaw) returned to the island in September.
He was among the final 14 to be removed by U.S. Marshals on June
11, 1971. Today, he collects bridge tolls for CalTrans. Photo
by Linda Sue Scott.
THE JOB IS NOT OVER
Some Alcatraz veterans lament that
the Indian activism of the 1960s is dead.
"Indian youth today are very
complacent," says George Horse Capture Sr., who in 1969
spent his first night on Alcatraz in a cell on Death Row-the
only quiet place away from all the singing, dancing and drumming.
"Indian youth of today need
to find their own 'Alcatraz.'"
Fortunate Eagle is optimistic.
In his comfortable dining room in Nevada, grandchildren and dozens
of pictures of his own three children surround him. "There
are plenty of issues still unresolved. What they need is a 'cause.'
Boyer isn't waiting. She is already
rounding up a list of "issues still unresolved." They
include battles to keep tribal gaming and affirmative action
in place for American Indians (she is convinced she never would
have made it into college without the latter), not to mention
fights against a myriad of congressional bills that attack tribal
"They're just robbing us of
everything," Boyer says of battles over water rights, fishing
rights and protection of the air and land. She has founded the
non-profit Atzlana Foundation to publicly tackle such issues.
On a Bay Area bridge, John Whitefox
just laments how quickly three decades went by. He glances at
the island, in plain view of where he works every day, and says,
"I mean, thirty years, man, and this is all I am-a toll-booth
worker for CalTrans." Time has stood still for Whitefox,
perhaps because he sees Alcatraz every day and its physical features
have changed little. From the tollbooth, the island is more literal
Yet, there are those who say Whitefox
and the others did plenty.
"They are the true heroes,
the true warriors, of this century," Fortunate Eagle says.
"They recognized a cause and acted on it."
American history changed forever
because of it.