(“Alcatraz” by Redbone)
On three separate occasions during the 1960s, Native American activists claimed and occupied the island of Alcatraz. The third occupation, which began in November 1969, lasted for a year and a half and launched the American Indian Movement (AIM) – an organization founded here in Minneapolis – to national prominence. It the last of the great non-violent protests to actively change history, and it ought to be as basic American history as the Boston tea party.
In seizing unused Federal land, the activists cited the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), which gave Indians the right to claim unused government property. The 22 acre island’s famous prison had been closed by the Federal government in 1963 due to it’s enormous cost of operation and concern from environmental groups. The Indians who peaceably occupied the island were led by a Mohawk named Richard Oakes. They issued this
“PROCLAMATION: TO THE GREAT WHITE FATHER AND ALL HIS PEOPLE
We, the native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery … We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian Reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standard. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations in that:
1. It is isolated from modern facilities,
and without adequate means of transportation.
2. It has no fresh running water.
3. It has inadequate sanitation facilities.
4. There are no oil or mineral rights.
5. There is no industry, and so unemployment is very great.
6. There are no health care facilities.
7. The soil is rocky and unproductive,
and the land does not support game.
8. There are no educational facilities.
9. The population has always exceeded the land base.
10. The population has always been held as prisoners
and kept dependent upon others.
Furthermore, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.”
And it was news. No other event in modern history has so successfully brought Native issues to the front pages. People paid attention to it the way we pay attention to Chaz Bono (who, all gender politics aside, is a pretty fascinating simply for being Sonny and Cher’s child – Can you imagine bringing your report card home to them?). Creedence Clearwater Revival donated $15,000 which paid for a boat that was named Clearwater, and celebrities visited the island as well as native American leaders.
(“Prayer” by Winterhawk)
Enormously controversial in it’s time and since, the occupation of Alcatraz had both positive and negative effects for Native Americans during the following decades. In 1972 AIM’s “Trail of Broken Treaties” protest overtook the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington DC and occupied them for a week. While the occupation brought to light many documents relevant to the BIA’s misrepresentation of Indian tribes, many more treaties and historical records were lost or destroyed, and while AIM’s “20 points” demands were allegedly placed on President Nixon’s desk during the occupation, the government has yet to act on a single one.
The 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee and it’s months-long standoff went even more poorly, plunging the surrounding Pine Ridge Indian Reservation into decades of violence and despair. Pine Ridge is easily portrayed as the canary in the coal mine, as it is not only the poorest Indian reservation in the United States but the poorest region in our country by any measurement. Unemployment is higher than 80%, and the residents of the reservation – On which the sale of alcohol is prohibited – purchase more than 4.5 million cans of beer a year from nearby Whiteclay, Nebraska (Pop. 14). One in every four children are born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, only a 10 hour drive from Minneapolis, is the lowest in the western hemisphere.
(“Task Force” / “BIA” by Floyd Westerman)
The 1975 shootout that led to Leonard Peltier’s controversial conviction and the murder of Anna Mae Aquash later that year shrouded the ongoing legacy of AIM, and the organization became increasingly less influential on national dialogue. Richard Oakes, the Mohawk Indian who had been a leader in the Alcatraz occupation, was murdered by a white YMCA camp leader named Michael Morgan. Oakes intervened to protect an Indian youth from Morgan, who shot him in cold blood. Morgan was initially charged with involuntary manslaughter, although the charges were eventually dropped.
(“Indian Reservation” by Paul Revere and the Raiders)
Lord, what a depressing tale. Surely some good came from these events. The answer is yes, in the form of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, a relatively unknown act of Congress that eliminated one of the most ill-conceived and disastrous policies the American government has ever pursued: Termination.
No, not what you may think (the government’s genocidal policy of the 19th century), “Indian termination policy”, as it was commonly called, was a product of Cold War anxiety. Fearful that Native people could provide the reds (Ha, see what I did there?) a fifth column on our soil, the government set out in the 1940s and onward to move in the eventual direction of terminating the sovereignty of Indian land and the very identity of Indian culture. This is the period of history in which young Native Americans were forced to attend white schools because their own had been abolished. In many places Native languages were abolished. During this time the Federal government also seized control of Indian land rich in natural resources, which were naturally mismanaged until they became the wastelands that remain today.
(“Reservation Education” by Tom Bee)
In 1975 Congress repudiated that policy and asserted the sovereignty of Indian governments, and in 1983 President Reagan became the first Chief Executive to do the same. Improvements have been made in the protection of Native American culture and autonomy as a result, but the damage caused by four decades of systematic rejection remain.
(“Half Breed” by Cher)
I would like to end by telling you how we can make this all better but I can’t. While it is essential to carry an understanding of history with us into the future, it so often slows our journey forward. Not decades but centuries of injustice precede our progress. Surely abandoning Columbus Day, as we have previously the short-sighted and destructive policy of termination, could do good. Our primary obstacle in achieving this modest goal? Government workers, who else? So long as they get the goddamn day off – paid, no less – the truest of Americans are going to suffer the indignity of Columbus Day.
But I propose a solution. Unthanksgiving Day. Not as joyless as the post-Alcatraz event established in Massachusetts, the National Day of Mourning, and not as absurd as the Crazy Horse Monument, is could easily be the kind of day you forget altogether if it doesn’t piss you off, like Columbus Day.