ALCATRAZ ISLAND, San Francisco Bay - If a body of water is the mythic
element above all others - and many Native traditions suggest as much -
then the waters around Alcatraz Island may yet give rise to mythology of a
kind people can make their own.
The East Coast, we remember every Thanksgiving, has its Plymouth Rock, and
a related mythology based on facts so thin it's almost embarrassing to read
the actual Pilgrim history. And the West Coast will have its Alcatraz if
Adam Fortunate Eagle has anything to say about it - he is willing to donate
his extensive archives on the Alcatraz period, before, during and after the
occupation, to any consortium of tribes that will fund a museum of the
occupation on the island. "I will work to make that happen."
Considering that no tribe, according to him, contributed funding to the
35th commemoration on Nov. 13, signs can't really be considered
encouraging. But much in such a museum's favor is a substantial body of
evidence that the occupation of Alcatraz Island was the turning point of
Indian destiny in America.
Just as it may not matter now that the Pilgrims were practically freakish
in their rejection of civility wherever they encountered it, so many people
have made the myth of Plymouth Rock their own; so it may not matter
someday, not if Indians make an Alcatraz occupation myth their own, that
the occupiers were a bit of a scattershot lot at best, more exuberant than
strategic, more youthful than experienced, more inspired than wise. Many
left the island before the occupation's official forced ending on June 11,
1971, when only 14 were left. Many were drawn away by real-life obligations
such as school and jobs and family; many had been disillusioned by the turn
on the island toward social instability; many had in fact been drawn by the
lure of dereliction masquerading as freedom. As reported in a most
noteworthy Native Peoples magazine article from 1999, on the 30th
anniversary, many had brought their addictions with them to an island that
didn't stay enchanted for long.
From the day of an early attempted landing in November 1969, when the late
Richard Oakes shed his shirt and plunged overboard, headed for the island
against unswimmable currents (he and some followers had to be rescued
finally), a great host of Indian people found themselves by crossing those
same waters to Alcatraz. And millions of Americans found Indians again, in
all of their distress, pride and potential. That is what matters.
Adam Fortunate Eagle insists on describing Oakes as the leader of the
occupation, and himself as the organizer. It comes a little strangely from
one whose contribution to Alcatraz has been to some degree cast aside, but
it makes a larger kind of sense. Oakes, carefree and collegiate,
charismatic and bright, came to typify the occupiers. He was almost
destined to become a media darling once Fortunate Eagle recruited him to
the Alcatraz occupation project at a Halloween party in 1969. He was a born
leader who led by example, but the example he set was somewhat short on
Fortunate Eagle, known then as Adam Nordwall, was fortyish and prosperous.
He didn't altogether appeal to the young people who would hurl themselves,
some of them, headlong flaming down the radical trail of the American
Indian Movement to a more famous occupation, at Wounded Knee Village in
1973. One of them told Native Peoples they launched their main occupation
of the island on Nov. 20, 1969, because Nordwall was out of town.
Once Nordwall arrived on the now-occupied island, he didn't stay but
returned to mainland San Francisco and its suburbs. He was an idealist in
those days, like all or most of the first-wave occupiers, but he also had a
family and a business to think about. He kept on organizing in support of
the occupation, as FBI and other documents suggest he did for years
beforehand. But mainly he worked at what the occupiers ultimately lacked:
Thirty-five years later, at a commemoration on the Nov. 13 compromise date
between the several landings occupiers attempted, Fortunate Eagle still
showed staying power. He stood with more than 100 people on the Rock, as
Alcatraz is widely known. "A handful of American Indian veterans of the ...
occupation of Alcatraz lit the same pipe they had passed from one to
another a generation ago," wrote a San Francisco Chronicle reporter at the
One feels that pipe will pass on to an expanding circle of spiritual heirs.
For as planned by its organizers, the occupation of Alcatraz made a
statement that Indians are here to press their claims, fed up with
oppression and determined to set right the things that concern them. "The
ominous clouds of termination were rolling across Indian country unimpeded,
until Alcatraz stood up to them," Fortunate Eagle recalled.
Alcatraz had been planned as a peaceful Indian assertion of presence and of
land rights, a strategic stand against termination that gained momentum
from a multitude of other Indian advocacy events, conferences, statements
and reports. Fortunate Eagle again: "No other event put on by Indians was
as positive as the occupation of Alcatraz ... It was just Indians, speaking
on their own behalf ... If we had gone on [the island] as they went on to
Wounded Knee ... we would have been off that island in a week."
As it was, the occupation lasted for almost two years. During that time, by
virtue of the occupation's impact on national opinion and within the
administration of President Richard M. Nixon, termination came to an end as
federal policy. Tribal self-determination took its place through Nixon's
"Special Message" and at least a dozen major implementing policy strokes in
the following years.
Tribal self-determination happened at the insistence of Indians. But
without the repeal of termination as federal policy, none of the necessary
political traction would have built up behind the Nixon-era Indian policy
reforms. The decks would not have been clear, so to speak. Congress and the
administration would not have gotten the running start they needed for the
virtual revolution they wrought in Indian policy between Nixon's Special
Message to Congress on Indian Affairs of July 8, 1970, and the Indian Self
Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, followed by the Indian
Health Care Improvement Act of 1976.
The occupation of Alcatraz set the stage for the Nixon administration's
successful effort to repeal termination as policy. As Fortunate Eagle
describes the climate of the times, "They were shutting down the system ...
They were gonna empty the reservations [through the post-termination relocation program] so the white settlers could move in. Another Oklahoma
But it didn't happen. Not only that but the tables turned forever. For
perhaps the major message of Alcatraz was that Indians are here on the land
and won't be terminated.
It's the stuff of myth in the making, all right. Meanwhile, on Nov. 13,
more than 100 crossed the waters to Alcatraz.