Alcatraz. The name sounds mysterious and forbidding, and conjures images of criminals attempting escape from this desolate, fog-cloaked island. Yet Alcatraz is a symbol of hope and pride for Native Americans because of an event that began there in 1969.
Long before Alcatraz was a federal prison, the island had been used by Native Americans. On November 9, 1969, young Native Americans reclaimed Alcatraz Island for their people. They did this to spark a change in the way Native Americans--who had been mistreated by the government for centuries--viewed themselves, their culture, and their rights as United States citizens.
A Mohawk named Richard Oakes, and about 80 Native American students from University of California--Los Angeles, led this rebellion. Once they claimed the island, Native Americans from all over the country, some of whom had never before left their reservations, joined them. The young urban Native Americans learned about traditional music and dance, and experienced a new sense of pride in their heritage. The group named themselves "Indians of All Tribes." They elected a governing council, and everyone on the island had a job. All decisions were made by unanimous consent of the people.
The Indian council wanted Alcatraz to be formally declared Indian property. They wanted to build an Indian university, a cultural center, and a museum. All of their demands were refused. At the same time, news of Alcatraz rebellion spread across the nation, and Indian rights issues were brought to the attention of the American public. In 1970, a group called United Indians, inspired by the Alcatraz occupation, attempted to claim part of Fort Lawton, an army post in Seattle, Washington. Because of the protest, government officials agreed to the development of Daybreak Star Center and Discovery Park, the latter of which is Seattle's single largest recreational tract.
By mid-1970, the government tired of waiting for the Indians to abandon Alcatraz. They removed the water barge that supplied fresh water to the occupiers. Three days later, a fire broke out on the island. Several historic buildings were destroyed, and each side of the conflict blamed the other. In January 1971, President Richard Nixon formed a removal plan and in June, the last Indians--only 11 adults and four children--were forced to leave Alcatraz.
The Alcatraz incident was seen as an important rallying point, which garnered sympathy among non-Indians. Because American Indians fought for the recognition of treaty rights through actions like those at Alcatraz, the government stopped trying to break down the tribal bonds between Indians. They returned many thousands of acres of tribal lands that had been taken from Native Americans by the government. Laws were passed to support tribal rights. The Indians' voices had been heard.
Heidi AbiNader is a teacher who lives in western Pennsylvania.
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.