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How Alcatraz Helped Native American Students

When handed a large donation during the Occupation of Alcatraz Island, organizers decided the best thing to do would be to help Native American students succeed.

When we took over Alcatraz Island on November 19, 1969, none of us thought there would be some money to come out of it. But the Alcatraz Island occupation by Indian college students set the direction of my life, and made it possible for me to do what I am doing today—helping Native American students go to college, graduate college, and serve their people.

I was the mainland coordinator for Alcatraz the first two months. That meant I got to answer the phone, unload cars and trucks that came to the San Francisco Indian Center, and deposit the money that came in to the bank. I also had to talk to our leader, Richard Oakes (Mohawk), several times a day on the phone. I wrote press releases that ran in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times. None of us had had any exposure to anything like it before. Alcatraz was the center of the nation’s attention for 19 months.

After Richard left in January, the leader was LaNada Boyer Means (Shoshone-Bannock). She had been the first Native American student at UC Berkeley two years before. When I got there in September 1968, I was the fourth Indian student on campus. San Francisco State, UC Davis, Sacramento State, and San Jose State had no Indi Native American students, even though there were 30,000 to 40,000 Indians in the San Francisco Bay Area. LaNada led the movement to change that, starting with recruiting Native American students to Berkeley. By the fall of 1969 there were 15 of us. In two years the number was 75 or more.


On the last day of the year, we got a phone call from an attorney. He asked when we could pick up a check. I said, “Immediately.” The check was for $10,700—more than a year’s salary. He told me the money was from Tom Mudd, the grandson of the founder of Cypress Mines, one of the largest mining companies in the world. They mined gold, lead, molybdenum, manganese, zinc, and other things all over the world. The grandfather was so rich that he built his own college, Harvey Mudd College, part of the Claremont Colleges in southern California. It is the best engineering college in the nation, I am told.

Tom had come up to Alcatraz Island from his home in Los Altos during the first week of the occupation. He stayed. I learned later that he had written a movie script about an Osage Indian boy who had been taken from his home in the 1890s and forced to go to a BIA boarding school for several years. The movie, unfortunately, never got made.

The letter with the check named seven people who would oversee the use of the money. The seven were Richard Oakes, Dr. Dorothy Miller, Earl Livermore (the director of the San Francisco Indian Center, where we had the Alcatraz office), Adam Nordwall, Dean Chavers, Don Patterson (the board chairman of the Indian Center and later long-time chairman of the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma), and Charles Dana, the Secretary of the Indian Center. Dr. Miller, who had her own research company, had written all the Alcatraz documents before we went over there.

None of us had ever seen this much money before. We decided to have a meeting on the following Sunday, the first Sunday of January 1970. None of could say what we should do with the money. But we decided to have another meeting the following Sunday.

I went to the Financial Aid office at Berkeley and asked what problems they had with Native American students. I didn’t know, because I was never on Financial Aid, a new program that had been started by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. They said it was getting immediate help to students, who might not have any money coming from Financial Aid for a month or two. If they had no money saved, they might have little food for that month. So I brought in a proposal to use the money for scholarships. No one had any other ideas, so we went with it.

We called it the Native American Scholarship Fund. My wife Toni and I ran it off our kitchen table for the next eight years. We wrote checks, folded inserts, stamped letters, and inserted inserts and Business Reply Envelopes (BRE’s) on that table for eight years. I started learning the fundraising business, which I am still learning. It has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done. We did it until I got the call to be president of Bacone College, the oldest Indian college in the nation, in 1978. I knew it when I took the job; the Native American Scholarship Fund would fold in six months.

And that is what happened. We got a call from the young lady we had hired to run it, and she had done almost everything I told her not to do—go to New York City in August to raise money in August, forget thinking of ways to raise money every day, and let the accountant handle the books. She did all these things—going to NYC in August when everyone is at Fire Island on vacation, not raising money every day, and taking our single entry bookkeeping system and converting it to double entry, which took months. She forgot that she had to raise money every day. And she called asking me what to do, since they had no money and could not pay the rent. I told her to send me the records and close it down.

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I stored the records from until 1986. Then my best friend James Lujan, the dean of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, and I decided to start it up again—with the same name. We got my mentor Patricia Locke Flying Earth (Standing Rock Lakota), my friend Jodie Palmer (Potawatomi), our friend Bill Schaaf (Chippewa), and my former student Geraldine Parker (Choctaw) to be on the board. We filed the papers in July 1986 and have been going ever since.

We had no money at first, so Jodie donated a blanket and we raffled it off and raised $180. One of our donors from the first NASF threw in $3,000 and suddenly we were in business. Within 10 years we were pulling half a million dollars a year. Our best year we raised almost $1 million.

We operated it as NASF for 10 years, and then changed the name because there were half a dozen outfits with the same name. None of them would change, so we did, changing it to Catching the Dream.

At Catching the Dream, we have helped to produce 891 graduates since 1986. They include 51 medical doctors, 157 business graduates, 28 engineers, 25 attorneys, and 35 nurses. A few years ago I tried to look up the man who started it all, Tom Mudd, on the Internet. I learned he had passed away. He was still single when I knew him, but shortly after we left California he got married. He and his first wife were only married a few years. He got married a second time to a professor in the Education Department at Stanford and they had two kids. They are Jack and Karina Mudd. Jack runs the family winery in Saratoga, California and Karina works for the United Nations in New York City. A year ago Toni and I got to have dinner with Karina and her uncle, Dr. Ross Frank, a professor at UC San Diego, and his wife.

Karina had no idea that her father had a long interest in Indians. She did not know he had written a whole movie script about an Osage boy who gets ripped away from his family and sent away to an Indian boarding school. It is one of the disappointments of my life that this movie never got made. The suits in Hollywood did not see the value in it.

Tom also went back to graduate school at Stanford after we left and got his doctorate in Civil Engineering. He was a chip off the old block. He worked at Stanford Research Institute for a few years, and then decided that he wanted to have his own vineyard and winery, Cinnabar Wines. It is still in the family. I have not yet met Jack Mudd, the son and manager.

Both remind me so much of Tom. He spent several Thanksgiving holidays with Toni and me and other first two girls, Cynthia and Monica. I fixed him up with two of the prettiest Indian women in the Bay Area, but nothing clicked with either one.

I owe him so much. But I can never repay it. He has led to us having 891 graduates. He has led to almost all of them serving Indian people as doctors, nurses, veterinarians, engineers, attorneys, teachers, scientists, business managers, and computer programmers. They amaze me. One of them left the Navajo Reservation, went to Florida where she was the only Native American student on the campus for four years, finished with her degree in Computer Science, went to work for IBM in Chicago, learned the ropes, and is back working for her people at Window Rock.

I am amazed at the toughness, resilience, and dedication of our Indian young people. They are our future, which Wallace Anderson, Roger Jourdain, and hundreds of our Indian leaders have said. They are going to help Indian people get to the life that so many of us could not get.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native American students. He is at

This story was originally published February 24, 2017.