Photo: Museum of Photographic Arts
Under the cloak of 2:00 a.m. darkness, 89 Native American men, women and children quietly gathered by the pier behind the No Name Bar in Sausalito, California. In the spirit of Sitting Bull and other iconic leaders of the past, their mission was bold: to lay claim to Alcatraz, transform the abandoned federal penitentiary into a cultural center and university, and highlight the injustices they had been suffering for centuries.
As they disembarked onto the old prison dock on November 20, 1969 — armed only with bedrolls and backpacks — they had no idea that the ensuing 19 months would catalyze a modern era of political and spiritual resistance whose powerful legacy stands strong today.
Sowing Seeds of Rebellion: Subjugation, Termination and Relocation (1851 -1960s)
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 marked a critical turning point in Native American history by funding the establishment of reservations throughout the west. Purportedly conceived to protect tribes from westward expansion, reservations were tracts of land often devoid of the vast hunting, fishing and other natural resources that had provided food, clothing and shelter for centuries. And their boundaries were not immune to further diminution.
The 1874 discovery of gold in the sacred Black Hills (Paha Sapa), for example, drove the U.S. government to repossess thousands of square miles of land — in clear violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie — and carve up the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller reservations: Standing Rock, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Lower Brule and Cheyenne River. Less land meant even fewer opportunities for the tribes to remain self-sufficient.
While Indian termination designed to eradicate tribal sovereignty and federal subsidies did not become official U.S. policy until the 1940s, the underlying principle of assimilation was vigorously pursued as early as the mid 19th century.
Off-reservation boarding schools designed to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” are the most infamous example. Under the auspices of “civilizing” native people, authorities rounded up over a hundred thousand children — many as young as four years old — and shipped them hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from home to one of the nation’s 500+ Indian boarding schools. (The federally-funded Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania boasted students from tribes as far as Arizona and Alaska.)
Upon arrival, the children were forced to have their hair cut, jewelry removed and traditional clothing confiscated; Christianity replaced native spirituality, and the schools immediately dispensed Anglo names and school uniforms — as well as beatings for those who continued to speak their native tongues.
These cruel practices persisted well into the 20th century. American Indian Movement (AIM) co-founder Dennis Banks (Ojibwe) recalls that the “beatings began immediately” after arriving at a school 300 miles from his home on Minnesota’s Leech Lake Reservation; just four years old, it would be another six years before he would have any contact with his family. Author Mary Crow Dog (Lakota) remembers nuns whipping her classmates for conversing in Sioux, as recently as the 1960s.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking consequence of Indian boarding schools was the irreparable impact on the parent-child bond. As Dennis Banks explains, “It destroyed our family… I could never regain that friendship, loveship relationship that I had with my mother… And that’s what, to this day, I keep thinking — damn this government.”
While the Indian boarding schools wielded their weapons of assimilation, Congress ramped up its own agenda. In 1953, it issued a resolution eliminating federal aid and services; three years later, it passed the Indian Relocation Act, providing incentives to native people who left their reservations to find jobs in urban communities. As activist Adam Fortunate Eagle (Ojibwe) describes, the U.S. government was intent on “getting out of the Indian business” by “wiping out every reservation in the country.”
But with reservations plagued by substandard housing (many without electricity or running water), sky-high unemployment rates (up to 80%) and far below average life spans (early to mid 40s), job opportunities in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Minneapolis were attractive. As AIM member and founder of Women of all Red Nations Madonna Thunder Hawk (Lakota) describes, the government made the relocation package “look good — streets paved with gold.”
The marketing worked. An estimated quarter of a million Native Americans migrated to urban areas between 1950 and 1980.
But relocation wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. “They put us in a real dumpy motel,” Thunder Hawk says. And racism was rampant, explains AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt (Ojibwe). “If you went in to apply for a job, you better not tell them you were Indian; you better tell them you’re French or Italian or some other nationality.” For many, things were no better in the city than they had been back home on the reservation.
Conditions grew ripe for rebellion.
A New Era of Resistance
The government’s termination and relocation policies led to some very unintended consequences.
Following a century of isolation on reservations, young native people from all over the country began crossing paths. By the 1960s, they were forming Native American student chapters on campuses and community centers in cities. Inspired by the civil rights struggles of African Americans, a streak of activism emerged among Native American youth — and the Red Power movement was born.
Alcatraz Island (1969-1971)
The Bay Area was a relocation hotspot, and the San Francisco Indian Center served tens of thousands of people through its social programs and community gatherings. When it burned down under suspicious circumstances on October 9, 1969, Adam Fortunate Eagle, San Francisco State student Richard Oakes (Mohawk) and others hatched a plan for a replacement. They would take over Alcatraz.
They even had a legal basis. The former federal prison had been abandoned by the government in 1963, and the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie — which had never been formally abrogated — permitted the Sioux to claim surplus federal lands.
After an aborted attempt in early November, Richard Oakes and 88 others, calling themselves Indians of All Tribes, successfully landed on Alcatraz on November 20, 1969. What some believed might be a two-day political demonstration soon turned into a full-fledged occupation — a peaceful stand for native rights that would last nineteen months.
Despite the lack of running water, telephone service or reliable electricity, the occupiers established a kitchen, clinic and school, and activist/artist John Trudell (Santee Dakota) broadcasted news reports live on “Radio Free Alcatraz.” Support from celebrities such as Anthony Quinn and Jane Fonda brought welcome media attention. Donations flowed in, and the population of Alcatraz swelled; John Trudell estimates that 15,000 native people came through the island between November 20, 1969 and June 11, 1971 to join this protest that was all “about spirit.”
While the occupation ultimately concluded without a deed transfer when federal marshals forcibly removed the remaining 15 protestors, President Nixon reversed course, formally replacing termination with Indian self-determination policy and returning some ancestral lands.
Perhaps the occupation’s greatest consequence, however, was that it sparked global awareness of native issues and instilled a new sense of cultural pride — inspiring dozens of protests both large and small in the ensuing years, several of which are discussed below. Forty years later, Adam Fortunate Eagle called the Alcatraz occupation the most important native event since Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors annihilated General Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Mt. Rushmore (1970)
To some, Mt. Rushmore is an iconic celebration of American democracy, ingenuity and spirit.
For the Sioux, it is a heinous desecration of sacred land stolen by the U.S. government.
While the Indians of All Tribes were making their stand at Alcatraz, on August 29, 1970, a charismatic former Marine and UC Berkeley graduate student named Lehman Brightman (Lakota) led a group called the United Native Americans atop Mt. Rushmore. Renaming it Crazy Horse Mountain, the 23 protestors drummed, sang and unfurled a huge sign proclaiming “SIOUX INDIAN POWER” as tourists watched on from below.
While the protestors’ demand for the lawful return of the Black Hills was (unsurprisingly) never met, their peaceful three-month occupation — the first Indian uprising in South Dakota since the Battle of the Little Bighorn — brought the movement out of the city and back into Indian country.
Trail of Broken Treaties and the BIA Building Takeover (1972)
As the Red Power movement gained momentum, so too did the boldness of its leaders.
Under the direction of Dennis Banks (Ojibwe), Russell Means (Lakota) and brothers Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt (Ojibwe), the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement (AIM) led a transcontinental protest (in collaboration with other organizations) called the “Trail of Broken Treaties.”
The goals were (1) to shed greater light on issues affecting native communities and (2) to present to Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and George McGovern a Twenty-Point Position Paper that proposed abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), restoration of land rights, establishment of a treaty commission and other reforms.
Seven caravans departed various west coast locations in early October 1972, garnering supporters as they made their way towards Washington, D.C. They arrived days before the presidential election — and that’s when things began to break down.
A confluence of pre-election travel schedules, lack of sufficient planning and coordination on both sides, and a rat infestation at a host location left 500 Indians from 250 tribes with no place to sleep and no candidate to whom they could present their Position Paper.
Believing that they had once again been disregarded by the government — the cornerstone of the Red Power movement — they refused to leave the BIA building, forced the guards outside and set up a blockade. Anger boiled over, and the demonstrators caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage over the course of the next week.
This volatility, however, proved invaluable to the occupiers by ensuring the necessary press coverage that the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan had otherwise lacked. Liberal and conservative columnists writing for major newspapers opined on both the frustration underlying the occupation and the White House’s response, sparking a new national conversation.
AIM became a household name.
Wounded Knee (1973)
So when the traditional people on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation needed assistance, it was AIM they called on to help.
Pine Ridge was in shambles in the early 1970s. (Sadly, little has changed since.) The poorest jurisdiction in all of the United States, the reservation was subject to the authoritarian rule of tribal chairman Dick Wilson — aided by his paramilitary GOON (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) squad that terrorized the mostly full-blooded traditional people who opposed Wilson’s misappropriation of funds, nepotism and political suppression.
When efforts to impeach Wilson failed in February 1973, AIM was asked to come to Pine Ridge. Alongside local Oglala Lakota people and with the blessing of the respected elder Chief Fools Crow, they seized the town of Wounded Knee — the same place where the U.S. Cavalry had massacred more than 300 unarmed Sioux, mostly women and children, in the winter of 1890.
On sanctified ground, Lakota medicine men introduced urban Indians to the purification lodge (inipi), sacred pipe (canunpa) and other spiritual traditions. As Clyde Bellecourt remembers, “Everything that we did was preceded by prayer — gathering, smoking of the sacred pipe, and tobacco offerings.” The occupation was as spiritual as it was political, and no location could have been more fitting.
But while the site was symbolic, the 71-day occupation could not have been more real. The U.S. military response was immediate; the F.B.I. hoarded weapons, army tanks rolled in and fighter jets circled overhead. The GOON squad set up its own militarized roadblocks, and gunfire was exchanged nearly every night.
There was one thing that saved the occupiers from an all-out assault — the press.
Reporters and television cameras from major networks were stationed at Wounded Knee, and the world was watching. With public opinion in favor of the Indians — further boosted by Marlon Brando’s 1973 Academy Awards boycott in support of the occupation — the last thing the U.S. government wanted on its hands was another Wounded Knee massacre caught on camera.
But while the press ensured protection, it held little bargaining power and was eventually ordered to leave by a Department of Justice official.
With the White House embroiled in the Watergate scandal, treaty rights negotiations came to an impasse. The violence escalated, and paranoia infected the community when it became clear that government informants were among them. When Buddy Lamont, an Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, was shot and killed, the elders decided it was time to conclude the occupation.
In one sense, the stand at Wounded Knee was a failure. Infighting and criminal charges against AIM members permanently debilitated the organization. Dick Wilson remained in power, and a three-year “reign of terror” followed, during which more than 60 AIM supporters were murdered while the FBI either collaborated or looked the other way. (It was also during this period that two FBI agents were killed in a shootout that led to the 1977 conviction of Leonard Peltier, based on what many believe was false testimony obtained through FBI coercion.)
But it was also a crucial turning point. In addition to further catapulting native issues onto the global stage, Indians across the continent began embracing the traditional customs and languages of their ancestors — shooting a final, fatal arrow into the heart of the government’s assimilationist policies.
Though it would be decades before their next legendary stand, native people — and their traditions — were here to stay.
Standing Rock (2016)
When news hit this past July that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred burial grounds and under the Missouri River would soon begin, Standing Rock tribal member LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Lakota) did what any modern organizer would do — she shot a short video on her iPhone asking people to join the small Sacred Stone protest camp and posted it on Facebook.
What would happen next at Standing Rock — where Sitting Bull took his last breath over 125 years earlier — was anybody’s guess.
But the people came. And they kept coming. One protest camp soon turned into three (Sacred Stone, Oceti Sakowin and Rosebud), and water protectors, supplies and donations flooded in. By fall, Oceti Sakowin alone had more than 7,000 people, and the flags of more than 300 Indian nations lined its roads.
Fueled by social media, the movement extended far beyond camp boundaries. Allies across the nation have, for months, been participating in #NoDAPL demonstrations, donating funds and supplies, boycotting banks funding the pipeline, and educating friends and families about what’s at stake at Standing Rock.
Drawing both inspiration and lessons from the past, peacefulness and prayer lie at the heart of this occupation — even in the face of militarized security forces, attack dogs, tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. (It has been reported that the Standing Rock Tribal Council voted unanimously to oust a fourth protest camp, Red Warrior, for engaging in destructive tactics.)
Planet Expert Dr. Erica Wohldmann traveled to Standing Rock and saw it firsthand. Every protest action she witnessed — for example, a human roadblock designed to prevent the advancement of drilling equipment — was preceded by fireside prayer and succeeded by a ceremony welcoming each participant back into the community circle.
She was inspired to see the leadership torch being passed down from the elders to the youth council — a particularly poignant observation given that it was today’s elders who established the Red Power movement in their own youth more than 45 years ago.
And they could not be more pleased with their legacy. As AIM founder Clyde Bellecourt told the BBC, “I am 80 years old. I’ve been jailed, I’ve been shot. This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. This is what I fought for.”
Their perseverance has paid off. In a landmark victory on December 4, 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement necessary to complete construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
While the fight is far from over — the next battle will be waged in federal district court in February 2017 once Trump’s fossil fuel friendly administration takes office — the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters are more emboldened than ever.
Sitting Bull would be proud.
To learn more about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ December 4 decision and the legal, procedural and political aftermath, read Digging Deeper Into DAPL After Last Week’s Double Whammy.