'Red Power! You're on Indian land

Drive behind occupation of Alcatraz lingers 50 years later (this story has been updated)

Felicia Fonseca and Terry Tang
Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — On a chilly November night 50 years ago, a 7-year-old Peter Bratt, his four siblings and their single mother left their San Francisco home for the pier. From there, they joined a group of indigenous activists on a small boat, bobbing in fog and rolling over what felt like tidal waves.

They eventually landed at their destination — Alcatraz Island. At first, all the young boy could see was a vast, "magical" playground. He and other children roamed the beaches, literally blazing their own trails. They explored buildings that once housed prisoners, including Native Americans incarcerated there nearly a century earlier.

Despite his age, Bratt quickly comprehended that the adventure was the start of a movement. The adults banded together to take back a body of land that they felt didn't belong to the U.S. government to begin with.

"I remember seeing these young Indian people from all over the country shouting to the world, 'Red Power! You're on Indian land,'" said Bratt, 57, the older brother of actor Benjamin Bratt. "Whoa, that was a game changer. I felt like I was finally home."

In this photo taken March 26, 1970, Eldy Bratt, 33, walks down the lonely corridor of a cell block on Alcatraz with her son Peter Bratt, left, and one of her daughters in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
In this photo taken March 26, 1970, Eldy Bratt, 33, walks down the lonely corridor of a cell block on Alcatraz with her son Peter Bratt, left, and one of her daughters in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

The 19-month occupation of Alcatraz, which started Nov. 20, 1969, is widely seen as a seminal event that reinvigorated tribes to organize in the face of a U.S. government steamrolling over their land, their rights and their identities. Many Native American activists today say they are still struggling to have their voices not only heard but respected. They point to recent examples like their ongoing fight against a proposed oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota that they argued would contaminate water. President Donald Trump's administration approved a final permit for it early in his term.

Alcatraz was the beginning of something, according to Bratt. His mother, who is indigenous to Peru, was among those keeping the momentum going. Their San Francisco home became a haven for Native American activists who were fighting for issues including sovereignty and treaty recognition. It also provided heroes for younger Natives beyond figures in history books.

"I think movements and events like Alcatraz and the Wounded Knee standoff, I think they gave us new role models and new warriors to look up to," said Bratt, who visited Alcatraz earlier this month.

In this photo taken Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, the words "Indian Land" are painted on a building on Alcatraz Island with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, the words "Indian Land" are painted on a building on Alcatraz Island with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The 21-acre rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay was a military prison before it served as a maximum-security federal penitentiary. Some of its earlier prisoners included 19 Hopi men incarcerated in 1895 after resisting cultural assimilation, according to the National Park Service website.

Occupiers argued they had a right to Alcatraz under an 1868 treaty the U.S. government signed with the Sioux that said abandoned government land would be returned to indigenous people. After the federal prison there closed in 1963, it was declared surplus property, a necessary step in selling it or transferring ownership.

Donations came in from around the world, and the occupiers set up a clinic, a live broadcast and a school system for children on the island.

But the coalition of tribes knew it likely wouldn't get what it wanted: the deed to Alcatraz, a museum, cultural center and university built there, sustained federal funding and a seat at the table in administering national parks.

Over time, the occupiers dwindled. Students returned to college. One of the main organizers, the late Richard Oakes, left after a few weeks when his daughter was killed in an accidental fall from a stairwell. Infighting among demonstrators created factions, and Alcatraz eventually became more of a place for transients looking for food and shelter. Armed federal officials removed the last of the occupiers in June 1971.LaNada War Jack, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, was in her 20s when she helped plan the Alcatraz takeover. She points to recent decisions by the federal government to relax environmental laws and policies that don’t fully allow Native Americans to oversee public safety on their reservations as signs these battles are ongoing, and much work remains to be done.

“We’re really digressing rapidly, and we need to speak up and say something again and try to get some unity and some support and wake up the people in America,” she said.

Robert Free also participated in the occupation, leading the raising of a teepee that became a demonstrators’ meeting spot. He revisited the island over Veterans Day weekend.

Just like 50 years ago, Peter Bratt helped Free put up a teepee with the help of several Native teens. It will remain there until early January. But Free wants it to be a permanent monument to the beacon it became for subsequent protests.

“The Alcatraz occupation drew people from across the country and inspired people across the north continent and south continent and central America,” said Free, now 70. “All these people came and gave us lost souls direction. We were rediscovering ourselves.”

In this Nov. 18, 1970, file photo, Sioux Indian John Trudell stands next to the teepee he set up for himself during the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/File)
In this Nov. 18, 1970, file photo, Sioux Indian John Trudell stands next to the teepee he set up for himself during the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/File)
This Jan. 14, 2013, file photo, shows a restored water tower with words that read "Peace and Freedom Welcome Home of the Free Indian Land" seen through an entryway to the main cell house on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The words were first written on the water tower during the Native American occupation. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
This Jan. 14, 2013, file photo, shows a restored water tower with words that read "Peace and Freedom Welcome Home of the Free Indian Land" seen through an entryway to the main cell house on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The words were first written on the water tower during the Native American occupation. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, a guard tower stands near the main dock on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, a guard tower stands near the main dock on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, Eloy Martinez, who took part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz 50 years earlier, stands by a teepee on the island and looks out toward the bay and Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, Eloy Martinez, who took part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz 50 years earlier, stands by a teepee on the island and looks out toward the bay and Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, the word "Free" is painted below an eagle figure that hangs on the entryway to the main cell house on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The words were added during the Native American occupation of the island. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, the word "Free" is painted below an eagle figure that hangs on the entryway to the main cell house on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The words were added during the Native American occupation of the island. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, Eloy Martinez, who took part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz 50 years earlier, looks over a group photograph showing the occupiers displayed in an exhibit on the island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, Eloy Martinez, who took part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz 50 years earlier, looks over a group photograph showing the occupiers displayed in an exhibit on the island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, Eloy Martinez, who took part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz 50 years earlier, stands in the cell that he used to sleep in and looks out at tourists visiting the island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, Eloy Martinez, who took part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz 50 years earlier, stands in the cell that he used to sleep in and looks out at tourists visiting the island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this Dec. 2, 1969, file photo, a new group of arrivals walks across the docking area with handfuls of possessions during the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/RWK, File)
In this Dec. 2, 1969, file photo, a new group of arrivals walks across the docking area with handfuls of possessions during the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/RWK, File)
In this Nov. 26, 1969, file photo, Native Americans play ball games at the main dock area on Alcatraz in San Francisco during their occupation of the island. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/File)
In this Nov. 26, 1969, file photo, Native Americans play ball games at the main dock area on Alcatraz in San Francisco during their occupation of the island. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/File)
In this Nov. 19, 1969, file photo, part of a band of Native Americans look over the main cell block of Alcatraz after occupying the island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/RWK, File)
In this Nov. 19, 1969, file photo, part of a band of Native Americans look over the main cell block of Alcatraz after occupying the island in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.(AP Photo/RWK, File)

Tang reported from Phoenix. Fonseca and Tang are members of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow them on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP.

Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the occupation of Alcatraz.

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