SAN FRANCISCO – It began and ended like any other prayerful sunrise ceremony on Alcatraz Island. Crowds bundled in layers of clothing huddled onto ferries. Drummers sang as the boats took turns floating more than 3,500 people across icy waters. Dancers pounded bare feet across the cool floor of the island turned prison turned museum.
But this year, memories of the youthful spirit that painted in red the declaration “Indians Welcome; Indian Land” around the island’s United States Penitentiary sign took precedence. This sunrise ceremony on Un-Thanksgiving Day was a celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz – a day when a group of Natives took a leap into history.
The paint remains, but few could personally recall Nov. 20, 1969, when 79 Natives landed to reclaim the island under a loose interpretation of a treaty that dictated the return of unused federal land to the Natives from whom it was acquired. And few could remember a time when physical and armed confrontation, and the loss of lives, was almost a required part of the civil rights struggle for Natives.
For those who could, the day was a powerful reminder.
“Alcatraz was to put your life on the line, it was a struggle; it was a sacrifice. We were ridiculed and put down but we didn’t care because we knew we were right,” said Lakota Harden, 52, Minnecoujou-Yankton Lakota and HoChunk. “We knew what we were doing was powerful. This taught us all not to give up.”
Harden was 12 and in boarding school at the time of the occupation, which was a successful third attempt after the two others lead by Native San Francisco State students and a small group of Sioux. It lasted 19 months and along with a forceful wave of American Indian activism that followed influenced the federal government’s decision to end its policy of termination and pass the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.
Harden was a young representative of the American Indian Movement’s “We Will Remember” Survival School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which was established out of the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. She has since worked with organizations including the International Indian Treaty Council, Women of All Red Nations and the Black Hills Alliance, and was the ceremony emcee.
Her cousin and aunt joined the Alcatraz occupiers in 1969, and Harden could remember a time on the reservation when it was “powerful to look Indian, with long hair and braids, jeans and AIM symbols. You could get shot at.
“This was the birthplace of everything – after this, everything changed.”
For J.R. Laiwa, a California Pomo and Wailaki who joined the Alcatraz occupiers in his 20s, the island was a place of personal change. He had returned from serving in a war he opposed in Vietnam and was haunted by the realization that Natives faced similar circumstances to the Vietnamese under U.S. military occupation.
“I look back and have a lot of happy memories of being here. But I don’t think of it as a legacy; I see it as a beginning. We still have to ask for everything, we still have to beg for everything. I walk the streets and I don’t see more than one indigenous person. We still have to struggle.”
That sentiment was echoed by the honored speakers – Bill Means, IITC founder and U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations co-founder, and Clyde Bellecourt, one of the AIM founders and a participant in the occupations of Wounded Knee and a BIA building in 1972.
Bellecourt mentioned the excitement felt across the world when President Obama took office, and his own warning to “be vigilant and watchful. We’ve had promises before.” He watched as industries and Wall Street were bailed out, while Native people continue to wait for what is theirs to be returned.
In his talk, Means referred to the struggles of indigenous people south of the U.S. border and repeated several times to loud cheers, “There are no immigrants, only migrants.”
Means said there is a worldwide indigenous movement that is 375 million strong. But “we have to reignite the flame,” sparked by Alcatraz.