The occupation of Alcatraz by Indians of All Tribes on Nov. 20, 1969 changed the consciousness of American Indians across the nation and especially in the Bay Area.
When the last occupiers left, they returned to Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco and created new spaces for American Indians living in the area.
Gino Barichello recalls his late mother, Millie Ketcheshawno, who was one of the first to occupy Alcatraz.
“After Alcatraz we began to really organize and demand change,” he says. His mother worked with the Golden Gate Park District and helped produce the film, “Alcatraz Is Not An Island”, directed by Jim Fortier in the early 90s. Millions of park visitors now watch the film and learn about the human rights issues the occupation tried to bring to light.
She was Muskogee Creek and after moving back to Oklahoma, Ketcheshawno would return to the Bay Area and attend the University of California at Berkeley where she received a B.A. in American Indian studies and film.
Two policies marked the rallying point for the 19 month occupation: the policies of termination and relocation. The first was designed to destroy tribal governments and lands and the second was designed to move tribal citizens into the cities.
Some 210,0000 people moved from reservations into large urban centers under relocation.
The success of Alcatraz led to the founding of the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland in 1974. The executive director today is Mary Trimble Norris.
“This agency is unique in that it supports American Indian foster programs, tribal education programs, and is one of the few centers that offers therapeutic services for youth aged 18 and under," she said. "We also provide after school tutoring, and encourage our students to continue with their education.”
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In that vein, the resource center intentionally holds an annual powwow at Laney Community College as a way to encourage students to attend college.
After the Alcatraz Occupation, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975 helped bring about the presence of programs for Indian students.
Jim Lamenti and his wife Evelyn began programs in 1989 within the Oakland Unified School District. Eventually that became the Hintil Kuu Ca child development center.
Shirley Guavara, an early occupier on Alcatraz, was the first director of that center. In the mid 90s, the American Indian Public Charter School was created to keep Indian kids in middle school and connected to culture in an educational setting.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day began in Berkeley in 1991. The city was the first in the nation to declare October 14th as Indigenous Peoples Day, a an official city holiday. This changed the narrative of the Columbus mythology.
In 1990, then mayor Loni Hancock sent John Curl, a poet and linguist to Quito, Ecuador, to participate in the Encuentro (encounter) of Indigenous People of North and South America to discuss other situations that challenged Indigenous rights. Upon his return the Resistance 500 was created.
“We formed resistance committees throughout the Bay area, working in areas such as education, culture and art, media, environment, and legislation. This all grew from the successful occupation of Alcatraz,” said Curl.
“Often we met at the Inter Tribal Friendship House in Oakland, one of the oldest urban Indian centers in the U.S. Inter Tribal Friendship House became the center of a new inter-tribal and cooperative, “urban Indian” identity.'"
Today Carol Wahpepah is the executive director and operates youth programs, art and cultural presentations, elders dinners, a traditional garden, weekly dance and drum practice, and many other programs for urban families focused on health, education, traditional and contemporary art and culture within the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Indigenous Peoples’ Day powwow was envisioned by the late Ketcheshawno. Her son Gino still leads the committee.
In 1993 the committee held a two day pow wow and gave educational presentations to Berkeley High School students. Those presentations shared culture and history, and sponsored a drama, entitled, “Watershed” written by Steve Most and directed by Paul Hellyer. It was about the Yurok salmon war of 1978.
At this year’s pow wow, that also marked the 50th anniversary of the Alcatraz Occupation, the head judge was another known leader, Sacheen Littlefeather.
She too has memories of the occupation.
“I only went out to the island on week-ends because I was a student at the time at UC Berkeley," Littlefeather said. "I remember that I went on the Clearwater boat, donated by John Fogarty of Creedance Clearwater band. There were so many celebrities helping us through the media, donating funds, and food.”
Littlefeather talked about other women from the occupation who made great contributions to the local area and had effects nationwide. Wilma Mankiller worked with the Pomo’s in northern California on water rights. She would later become the first woman elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Grace Thorpe was studying law, and found out about the 200 acres of federal land in Davis that became D.Q. University.
“D. Q. was the first college in California devoted to Indigenous people,” said Littlefeather. Dave Risling (Hoopa & Yurok) worked to establish American Indian studies in the U.C.’s throughout California.
At this year’s powwow the committee also selected a woman to be the second master of ceremonies.
Aurora Mamea, Blackfeet from Browning, Montana, has worked at the Native American Health Center in San Francisco for the past twenty years. Her most recent work is with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women group. Her mother was one of the original families to be relocated to San Francisco.
The occupation of Alcatraz has relevance to present day activism both on tribal homelands and in urban areas.
“It is now time for the next generation to help organize and continue the legacy of Alcatraz,” said Barichello. “Younger generations must make sure they feel comfortable with continuing our history, culture, language, and practices so that they don’t become lost within the very large, urban areas or feel lost on tribal homelands,”
“The 50th Anniversary of Alcatraz will continue to encourage, support and empower all our tribal people.”
Nanette Deetz is Dakota and Cherokee. She has lived in the Bay Area for more than 30 years. She is active in the local Indian community. You can find her on Facebook at Nanette Deetz.
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