Remembering the Anti-Colonial Struggle of Alcatraz
At sunrise this Thursday, the International Indian Treaty Council will convene a gathering at Alcatraz State Park, upholding a decades-long commemoration of one of the most historic acts of Indigenous resistance (Funcheap).
On November 20, 1969, dozens of Indigenous people organized as Indians of All Tribes landed on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, seizing the abandoned federal penitentiary site for a cultural center and school. For a year and a half, thousands of people supported the occupation of Alcatraz, as activists demanded the U.S. government give the legal deed to the island. But in May 1970, the Nixon administration cut power to the island, and a suspicious fire destroyed several buildings. A year later, federal law enforcement arrested and removed the remaining occupiers. But the occupation energized a “Red Power” movement that transformed the United States with militant actions for Indigenous self-determination across the country. Millions of acres of land were returned to Indigenous governance (History). It took the occupation of Alcatraz and the organization of the American Indian Movement to force the government to end its “Indian termination policy,” the federal policy of gradually eradicating tribal sovereignty and forcibly assimilating Indigenous people (EPA).
However, violent repression of Indigenous activism continued. In 1975, the FBI attacked Indigenous activists at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. American Indian Movement member Leonard Peltier was convicted of killing two FBI agents in a trial widely seen as prejudicial and unjust. The Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela denounced Peltier’s incarceration. Peltier, now 77, has “difficulties receiving adequate medical attention and gaining access to basic needs, like water” after almost half a century as a U.S. political prisoner (NBC News).
This year’s Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering marks the 53rd anniversary of the occupation. “I extend my best wishes, love, and solidarity to all those who will gather on this day. It’s very important that we continue to carry out these sunrise gatherings on this sacred and historic place, to tell the truth about our histories, share our cultures and commemorate and give thanks to all those who have gone before us and who left us these ways, no matter what they had to sacrifice,” says Lenny Foster of the Diné Nation, who participated in the occupation as a college student (KPFA).
Though the Red Power movement won significant victories despite murderous repression from federal law enforcement, the struggle continues. The Supreme Court is poised to weaken or strike down the Indian Child Welfare Act and endanger tribal sovereignty, the post-Alcatraz principle that tribal governments are free to autonomously regulate their internal affairs as sovereign governments (Missoulian, NCSL). Tribal sovereignty was also damaged when the Dakota Access Pipeline was constructed against the wishes of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, with pipeline defenders sentenced to years in federal prison under terrorism charges (AP). Today, the reservation where the FBI attacked and framed Leonard Peltier has a poverty rate of 97%. The median income is around $3,000 a year (Borgen Magazine).
Most non-Native people in the United States are taught to only consider Indigenous people in the past tense. Almost all references to Native Americans in school curriculums concern pre-twentieth-century events (Zinn Education Project). The erasure of present-day Indigenous people is why so many powerful institutions and public figures feel comfortable delivering performative “land acknowledgements” without the slightest intention of improving relations with the people from whom they stole the land—to say nothing of giving it back (CBC).
But as an influential essay puts it, “decolonization is not a metaphor” (OSU). We do not decolonize our jobs, schools, communities, churches, minds, or anything else by reciting certain sentences or reading specific books. Decolonization is the transfer of power from a colonial government (in this case, the U.S.) to the colonized people. It is an act that the colonial powers will do anything to prevent. With Thanksgiving approaching, the anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz is a reminder of the possibility and urgency of real decolonization in the face of ongoing cultural and physical genocide.
• In 1969, Indigenous activists launched an 18-month occupation of Alcatraz Island.
• They were seeking the decolonization of Alcatraz: its transfer from the colonial government of the United States to Indigenous people.
• There are ongoing threats to Indigenous sovereignty and well-being in the United States.