Alcatraz Island

Indians return to Alcatraz 40 years later

November 23, 2009, 6:21 am
On the night of Nov. 20, 1969, two rented boats filled with activists billing themselves "Indians of All Tribes" pulled ashore on Alcatraz. The lone inhabitant, a caretaker of the island's empty federal prison, offered no resistance beyond a few startled shouts.

Saturday, a handful of those initial occupiers and their supporters returned in very different circumstances: with the government's blessing, on a ferry that services this outpost of the National Park Service that receives 1.3 million visitors a year.

"This is a significant day for the island," said Howard Levitt, chief of education for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. "The occupation is considered to be a milestone in the self-determination and civil rights movements. We honor that."

The Park Service was not involved in organizing the morning-long ceremony to commemorate a 19-month event that remains a keystone in the turbulence of the late 1960s and early '70s. Nor was the ceremony linked to other events related to the anniversary, including an academic conference in Berkeley held last Friday and plans to project a movie about the occupation onto Coit Tower on Thanksgiving.

But where the government 40 years ago was the enemy - and in June 1971 removed the last of the occupiers - the Park Service Saturday provided free ferry rides for the participants. Once on shore, rangers loaded folding tables onto a pickup truck along with refreshments brought to the island by the organizers.

Later, while the 50 or so participating in the ceremony chanted and prayed, rangers walked back and forth behind them bringing out folding chairs.

The event was organized by Nila Northsun, whose father was one of the occupation's initial leaders, and Lorenzo Baca, an "artist-activist" from the Central Valley.

"A lot of important things happened 40 years ago, everything from Woodstock to 'Sesame Street,' " Baca said. "We needed to mark that, and also bring attention that we're still out there and still struggling" in terms of high poverty and unemployment among Native American tribes.

Baca started by building a fire from cedar logs; once it was steady, participants scattered dried cedar into the flames. There was a passing of a ceremonial pipe, and a drum-driven dance program by Mixcoatl Anahuac, a nonprofit dance company from the Mission District.

Except for the dancers adorned with feathered headdresses and anklets strung with Ayayotl seed pods that rattle with a shake of the leg - the crowd skewed toward elder status.

One was David Hakim, who as a student at Loyola College would drive north with supplies for the ever-shifting population of occupants. He also would bring cash donations - some of them from college administrators, a sign of how the occupation in its early months received support that crossed racial and class lines."I must have come up a dozen times," recalled Hakim, who took photographs that now are displayed in the visitor center on the island. "The first few times, whites weren't allowed on the island. I would just hand things off."

The occupation ended without the concessions originally demanded, such as the establishment of an Indian university on the island. But Alcatraz was transferred to the park system and is reclaimed each year, temporarily, for defiant gatherings on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.

"I just look at it like, we accomplished what we did," shrugged Eloy Martinez, who came ashore with the occupying party and remained until January 1970, when he returned to studies at UC Berkeley.

And what stands out about the initial journey?

"It was cold," Martinez smiled. "Most of us wore light jackets, and didn't think to bring blankets."