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An Occupation Worth Applauding

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Until the federal penitentiary was closed in 1963, Alcatraz Island was a
place most folks tried to leave. On Nov. 20, 1969, the island's image
underwent a drastic makeover. That was the day thousands of American Indians
began an occupation that would last until June 11, 1971.

The 1973 armed occupation of Wounded Knee along with the siege at the Pine
Ridge Reservation one year later (which led directly to the incarceration of
Leonard Peltier) are etched deeper in the public consciousness in terms of
recent Indian history, but is was the Alcatraz Island occupation that
ushered in a new era of Native American activism.

"The occupiers," writes Ben Winton in the Fall 1999 issue of Native Peoples
magazine, "were an unlikely mix of Indian college activists, families with
children fresh off reservations and urban dwellers disenchanted with what
they called the U.S. government's economic, social and political neglect."

"We hold The Rock," proclaimed Richard Oakes, a Mohawk from New York. Oakes
became the occupiers' spokesman...and his words became their motto. "The
occupation of Alcatraz was about human rights," said Winton. "It was an
effort to restore the dignity of the more than 554 American Indian nations
in the United States."

Over the course of the occupation, over 5600 American Indians took part-some
for a day, some for the entire 18 months. Twenty-three year-old John
Trudell, a Santee Sioux from San Bernardino, California heard about the
occupation, packed a sleeping bag, and headed to Frisco. "He became the
voice of Radio Free Alcatraz, a pirate station that broadcast from the
island with the help of local stations" explains Winton. "When he hit the
airwaves, the response was often overwhelming. Boxes of food and money
poured in from everywhere-from rock groups such as The Grateful Dead and
Creedence Clearwater Revival (who staged a concert on a boat off Alcatraz
and then donated the boat), Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, city politicians, and
everyday folks." For the first time in modern American history, the plight
of Native Americans was making headlines.

The fledgling American Indian Movement (AIM) visited the occupiers and soon
began a series of their own occupations across America. AIM would soon
become a powerful multi-tribal protest organization...just one of the many
important outcomes of the Alcatraz takeover.

"Despite its chaos and factionalism, the event resulted in major benefits
for American Indians," Winton states. "Years later, Brad Patterson, a top
aide to President Richard Nixon, cited at least ten major policy and law
shifts." Some of those policy shifts include:
" Passage of the Indian Self Determination and Education Act
" Revision of the Johnson O'Malley Act to better educate Indians
" Passage of the Indian Financing Act and the Indian Health Act
" Creation of an Assistant Interior Secretary post for Indian Affairs

Even today, Alcatraz Island remains part of Native American culture as every
November since 1975, on what is called "Un-Thanksgiving Day," Indians gather
on the island to honor the occupation and those who continue to fight today.

Excerpted from "50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know:
Reclaiming American Patriotism" (Disinformation Books) by Mickey Z. For more
info, please visit:
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