More than 40 years ago, Alcatraz was the scene of a large occupation in support of Native American people, which got international attention. Since the 2014 National Native Media Conference was being held in Santa Clara, California about an hour south of Alcatraz Island, I spoke with LaNada War Jack, who has a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and was a leading organizer of the occupation.
Why occupy Alcatraz?
There was an Indian group in 1964 that originally took Alcatraz on the basis of the 1868 Sioux Treaty. You know, it was federal law. I don’t know if it’s still standing—they might’ve changed it by now—but whenever the federal government vacates property that they’ve taken from Indian people—and of course, it’s this whole country—it’s supposed to go back to the tribe.
But they weren’t given any serious consideration at that time. So when we took it as students, we were reinforcing the treaty and the federal laws. We wanted our treaties and the laws recognized—and of course justice for our people.
Tell me about your experience on Alcatraz?
I was there throughout the whole period. I was still a student at Berkeley, and I would write my papers on the island, go back to the mainland and hitchhike off the dock with my son to head back to Berkeley. I’d check in with my teachers, then I’d go back to the island and do some more writing.
But I was also on the Alcatraz council, and I also did public relations prior to that. I stayed out of the leadership at the beginning because I was a student, and I wanted to concentrate on my studies. But it just didn’t work out quite that way.
You have a lot of energy when you’re young [laughs]. We did negotiations with the government, and they did their job to try to keep everyone divided. First of all, they said that we were young militants, and they couldn’t do business with us. I told them, ‘we may be young, but we’re not militants. This is a peace effort, and we don’t have guns or anything.’ I had my son there, we had children out there. I had to always maintain that stance, once they said we had guns on the island.
When they said they wouldn’t negotiate with us because we were young and militant, I squashed that whole militant thing because I was from Berkeley, and I knew what happened with the Black Panthers, so it wasn’t going in that direction at all. Then they said we were urban and not reservation. To them, we were not credible adults.
Who was opposed to the occupation, and why?
The government. Bob Robertson headed the negotiating party for the White House. Bob was the one who came out to the island, and we talked to him, but there were guys behind the scenes, like Brad Patterson from the White House and Leonard Garment. When I went to D.C., I would talk to those guys.
They were a part of the administration—they weren’t going to undermine their authority by taking the side of the Indians. Richard Nixon tried when he was the president, and he did stop the termination policies immediately—that 1970 law he signed into effect to stop the Termination Act, that was Public Law 280 that Eisenhower passed in the early 1950s to allow states to have jurisdiction on reservations.
How can we make non-Natives care about these issues?
Raising awareness. It takes a lot of education. We need to correct the history books. The more they make us look like the villain, the more they justify taking our land and resources.
What impact did the occupation have then?
I think it started a big wave with many ripples that have traveled far. It started the mindset of changing from Western thinking back to our culture and our traditions.
What do you think the impact of the occupation is today?
The biggest impact is that people have recognized that their culture and traditions are important.
They were afraid to speak their languages, and now we have language classes. We have ceremonies. We have things still going on that recognize our culture and our traditions. But bringing back our spiritual consciousness was, to me, the most significant impact. It had a worldwide impact.