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Historians say 1969 occupation sparked Native American land reclamation efforts

Alcatraz
Posted at 12:19 PM, Feb 06, 2023

In recent years, there's been a growing movement of Native Americans reclaiming land that historians say the government stole from tribes in the early 1900s. Historians say the birth of this movement was a 1969 occupation on the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.

Surrounded by strong currents and cold water, the island of Alcatraz was designed to imprison some of the country's most notorious criminals. However, the penitentiary shut down in 1963. Six years later in 1969, Eloy Martinez stepped foot on the island to participate in a Native American Occupation. It's now a key part of the island's history.

Historians say Native Americans chose to take the island because of an 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that allows the indigenous people to occupy land abandoned by the federal government. Yale professor of American Studies Ned Blackhawk says Native Americans were demanding reparations for what had been taken from them. Blackhawk is a member of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone tribe and the author of The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History.

He says the federal government had passed laws in the late 1940s and early 1950s that called for tribal nations to be terminated. It was known as the era of assimilation.

"The activists are trying to think through how do we articulate what we want in relationship to these current government policies, as well as the future of an Indian world that we would like to inhabit," Blackhawk said.

Today, Martinez visits often. His hope is that the occupation is never forgotten. He points out the welcome sign that was painted by Native Americans soon after they arrived on the island.

He says nostalgic feelings flood back every time he returns.

"Free, it was free, happy," Martinez said. "It was exciting because people were doing things, you know, I mean, it was fresh. Nothing, nothing like that had ever happened anywhere else."

He often returns with his good friend, Ilka Hartmann. She's a photographer who was born in Germany during World War II. She says the genocide Native Americans faced during the Gold Rush in the US reminded her of genocide during WWII, igniting her passion to stand up for marginalized communities.

"I was trying to take pictures of the Indians here having taken this land, and I was trying to show them with their pride and their success," Hartmann said.

She captured dozens of photos during the 19-month occupation. They are now on display at an exhibit on the island that she hopes becomes permanent. Other photographers at the exhibit include Brooks Townes and Stephen Shames.

"I remember hearing all the sounds here, the beautiful sounds of the riots that were loose everywhere," Hartmann said. "And it was like a sing-song everywhere. It really, really impressed me. And there were only here and there a few people, so it was very desolate."

Only about 89 Indigenous men, women, and children seized the land, but as Blackhawk states, they also seized the nation's attention.

"And for the first time, really in the 20th Century, Native Americans land literally on the front pages of the national headlines and newspapers," Blackhawk said.

"It was right there," Martinez said. "You had to look at it."

Blackhawk says the occupation sparked a movement of change in the years that followed.

"The occupation of Alcatraz was part of an era that launched a whole range of Native American, what are known as self-determination efforts in education, in the arts, in gaming or economic development, in land management," Blackhawk said.

"Termination policies were ended, the Indian Child Welfare Acts was reenacted, religious acts reenacted, gravesite protection, all that was enacted," Martinez said. "And that would've never happened if Alcatraz hadn't happened."

Blackhawk, Martinez and Hartmann all mention the federal government also returned millions of acres of land back to the tribes in the years that followed.

"45,000 acres of land to the Taos Blue Lake in New Mexico," Hartmann said. "And about 160,000 acres of land to Warm Spring Oregon tribe."

Sacred land is still being returned to Native tribes today. A revolution they say started with the Alcatraz occupation.