2011-11-21 "American Indians get permanent exhibit at Alcatraz" by Meredith May from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
One of the demands during the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz was to create a cultural center.
Forty years later, the former band practice room in the cellblock basement has been transformed into a multimedia exhibit of that 19-month occupation that many consider the birth of American Indian activism.
"Some said the occupation was a failure, but look, we did get our cultural center after all. It just takes time," said Eloy Martinez, 71, one of the original protesters who attended a special preview of "We Are Still Here" on Sunday.
The photos, videos and sound recordings were compiled by faculty and students at San Francisco State University and California State University East Bay and will become part of Alcatraz's permanent exhibit. One wall of photos, taken by former San Francisco State graduate student Salvador Sanchez Strawbridge, depicts sacred fires and Aztec dancers at this year's 40-year celebration of the Alcatraz takeover. Curators spent a year interviewing descendants of the late occupation leader Richard Oakes as well as those who followed him on a boat to occupy Alcatraz.
"He would really like this," said his son Leonard Oakes, 45, who lived on the island as a small child. At the exhibit, he watched archival KPIX news footage of the occupation, which included scenes of one of his sisters running on some concrete steps.
"Living here was the most defining moment of my life," he said. "It gave me my sense of identity and taught me everything I know about the nation."
In 1969, Oakes, a member of the Mohawk tribe who lived in San Francisco, led a group of 14 Indians to the island on a chartered boat to claim it for a new group they called Indians of All Tribes.
The island had been abandoned as a prison in 1963 and declared surplus by the government. At one time it was offered for sale for $2 million, and later a developer proposed high-end residences and a casino.
A fledging Red Power movement saw the Rock as a perfect place to stage a protest against historical occupation of American Indian land and a legacy of broken government treaties and promises to the tribes.
Soon the group grew to 800, and it issued a proclamation that has been reproduced for the exhibit, offering to pay $24 in glass beads and red cloth for Alcatraz.
"A precedent set by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago," the document reads. "We know that $24 in trade goods for these sixteen acres is more than was paid when Manhattan island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years."
The movement faltered in January 1970, when Oakes' 12-year-old stepdaughter, Yvonne, died after a fall on the island. He left with a broken heart, his followers began infighting, and the government saw its chance to cut off electricity and remove a water barge that pumped fresh water into a tank on the island. A fire broke out in June and destroyed a couple of buildings, and U.S. marshals finally came in and cleared the remaining 15 activists.
The American Indians didn't get their island, their cultural center or the university they had demanded. But they had earned a new respect. Within five years, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.
Until now, the Alcatraz exhibits about the American Indian history of the island have been somewhat limited, said Phil Klasky, who teaches American Indian Studies at San Francisco State.
"For tourists who come here to see Al Capone's cell, this exhibit gives a perspective told in the words of the American Indians who lived through this part of history," he said.
"So many people don't know about this part of San Francisco history," agreed Kris Road Traveler Longoria, who lived on Alcatraz with her activist parents and two sisters when she was 8. She narrated the audio portion of "We Are Still Here" and plans to return frequently to act as a docent for any tourists who wish to speak to someone who participated in the movement. Sunday was the first time in 42 years that she and her siblings returned together to the island.
"Alcatraz will always be my urban reservation," she said.
Jean Whitehorse of New Mexico, a veteran of the 1969-71 occupation, speaks at the event at Alcatraz.
Credit: Photos by Sarah Rice / Special to The Chronicle