An island that remembers inmates and freedom-seekers
By Richard Gonzales
Special to the Star-Telegram
Associated Press Archives
An August 1934 view of the penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
Once visitors disembark onto Alcatraz Island, they notice the handwriting on the cement wall overlooking the dock. In red, the sign reads, "INDIANS WELCOME." At the bottom in bolder print, the words declare, "INDIAN LAND."
Most visitors to the Rock come to see and learn about the prison and its infamous guests. Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert Stroud (a.k.a. the Birdman of Alcatraz) are just some of the luminaries that the prison held. An award-winning audio directs visitors through the prison grounds, giving a gritty story of cell life.
But Alcatraz's walls hold another story, as their graffiti hints. Underneath the island's water tower, Dan Cook, an instructor with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, tells interested visitors about the time that American Indians seized the island for 19 months in 1969-1971. In a distinct British accent, Cook challenged his audience about their knowledge of U.S. history.
Only one person in our group knew that England was the biggest foreign threat to the United States in the early 19th century or that the British had burned down the U.S. Capitol in the War of 1812. To guard the country from another British invasion, President Fillmore in 1850 had U.S. ports heavily guarded and tapped Alcatraz Island as a military facility.
Cook, in his English accent, said that Fillmore meant to keep the British out. Perhaps in 100 years, Spanish-accented guides along the Rio Grande will tell turistas about the U.S. government's attempt to bar border crossings with walls.
From the Civil War years until 1963, Alcatraz held prisoners of war, rebellious Indians and the worst U.S. prisoners. Attorney General Robert Kennedy declared the prison unfit in 1963 and shut it down.
In 1964, Sioux Indians cited a clause of the 1868 Treaty of Laramie giving any surplus federal land to the tribe. They seized the island for a few hours and were escorted off.
In an attempt to develop the island, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors awarded a lease to Lamar Hunt, a Texan and founder of the American Football League. He proposed to build a space theme park.
Before the deal could be finalized, college-age Bay Area Indians (called the "Indians of All Tribes") seized the island in November 1969. When a secretary informed President Nixon about the seizure, he expressed relief that the squatters weren't hippies.
At the time, strong anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements were roiling the country. Nixon wished to avoid bloodshed and further alienation of the public and decided to take a wait-and-see approach.
Letters to the editor and the president favored giving the island to the Indians. Money, food and supplies from across the country poured to the occupants. Led by Richard Oakes, a Mohawk, Indians from different tribes set aside rivalries and joined their brothers and sisters. The American Indian Movement took wings as they proposed to build a university and cultural center on the island.
Nixon's plan worked. The original idealism of the Indian students gave way to cynicism and power plays by older Indians. As the younger Indians returned to their college campuses, the older ones wrested control of the island. When fires burned several historical buildings and the lighthouse shut down, support dwindled. (Cook said that one alternative explanation for the blazes was that San Francisco police set them.)
Finally in June 1971, federal marshals stormed the island and removed the 15 remaining Indian occupants.
Cook said that visitors have grumbled that given the fee to visit the island, surely the government has enough money to repair the prison. He responds that visitors in Rome or Athens wouldn't dare tell the government to spiff up their ancient ruins.
The decaying, burnt buildings and red graffiti remind us that Alcatraz is a monument to our yearning for freedom both inside and outside the Rock's walls.
“NO PRISON BARS CAN STOP A PRAYER”
Here I am locked in my own shadow for more than 29 years
And yet I have reached my hand through stone and steel and razor wire
And touched the heart of the world.
Mitakuye Oyasin , my Lakota brethren say
We are all related
We are one