Nebraska-Omaha exhibit tells story of Native Americans’ Alcatraz Island occupation

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The federal penitentiary sign was painted with "Indians Welcome" during the occupation by the Indians of All Tribes.
The federal penitentiary sign at Alcatraz was painted with “Indians Welcome” during the occupation by the Indians of All Tribes.

On November 20, 1969, about 80 people joined Richard Oakes on a caravan of boats from Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco, to Alcatraz Island, thus beginning an 18-month occupation of the former federal prison. Once home to some of America’s most dangerous criminals, the island became home for Indians of All Tribes. Oakes, a Mohawk, was the coordinator of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State College.

The 27-year-old recruited college students from the west coast to join his planned occupation. Students from as far away as UCLA in southern California joined the occupation. Soon after the original 80 people took over Alcatraz, Native Americans from all over North America came to Alcatraz. The Indians of All Tribes organized the island to operate as a functioning state. My brother Johnny, who lived in the Los Angeles area after serving in the Navy, visited with Oakes at Alcatraz. He moved his family to the island to help with the occupation. This marked his first foray into activism. Johnny went on to host a show on Radio Free Alcatraz. He had the voice and personality for radio.

A photo of my brother Johnny (right) talking with Grace Thorpe, daughter of Jim Thorpe. Her dad was considered the best athlete of the 20th century.
A photo of my brother Johnny (right) talking with Grace Thorpe, daughter of Jim Thorpe. Her dad was considered the best athlete of the 20th century.

The story of the Alcatraz Island occupation is the subject of “Not Your Indians Anymore: Alcatraz Takeover and Red Power 1969-71,” an exhibit at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The exhibit at Criss Library runs through Aug. 10. Kent Blansett, PhD, organized the display, which features artifacts from his personal collection. He plans to have “Not Your Indian Anymore” as a traveling exhibit, eventually being shared at Alcatraz for the 50th anniversary of the occupation in 2019. The UNO exhibit is free and open to the public.

“Not Your Indians Anymore” starts with a photo of Dr. Charles Eastman, a Santee Dakota who became the first Native American medical doctor.

Posters on a wall outline the chronological order of what led to the occupation.
The exhibit explores the chronological order of what led to the occupation.

People believe the occupation “just” happened, Blansett said. That wasn’t the case. The late ‘60s were a time of crisis – riots occurred on college campuses, students and professors staged walkouts at colleges. The Black Panther Party had been organized in Oakland, Calif. Its members were working on community projects, such as feeding children. Native Americans faced their own issues – Relocation (moving Natives from reservations to urban environments with promises of financial support and economic boon) and Termination (ceasing a tribe’s right to exist in the eyes of the federal government) were failures. Native Americans – one in every seven nationally – were left in an urban desert, with few opportunities.

Oakes and his supporters brought Native American issues to the forefront of American conscious. The 1868 Treaty of Laramie allowed the return of federal land to Native Americans that had been abandoned, no longer used or deemed as surplus property, Oakes and Indians of All Tribes believed. Thus, Native Americans had a right to Alcatraz island.

A photo of IAT members inside the main cell block at Alcatraz.
A photo of IAT members inside the main cell block at Alcatraz. My brother Johnny is at the far left of the front row, holding his daughter Tara.

International attention

As the Native Americans lived on the island until June 1971, international attention was focused on the issues facing the First Peoples. News media, magazines – even “Good Housekeeping” – felt the need to tell the stories of the people and the issues they faced. A copy of “Good Housekeeping” featuring Mary Tyler Moore on the cover is included in the exhibit.

Even Mary Tyler Moore's Good Housekeeping cover was impacted by the Alcatraz Island occupation.
Even Mary Tyler Moore’s “Good Housekeeping” cover was impacted by the Alcatraz Island occupation.

Oakes led the occupation until January 1970, when a family issue forced him to leave the island. Oakes was later assassinated Sept. 20, 1972. Oakes’ story is the focus of a new book by Blansett – The Journey to Freedom: The Life of Richard Oakes, 1942-1972” – due to be published in September.

"Alcatraz is not an Island," Richard Oakes said. "It's an idea."
“Alcatraz is not an Island,” Richard Oakes said. “It’s an idea.”

The occupation was likely the impetus for future Native American demonstrations and occupations, including the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters and the Wounded Knee reservation occupation in 1973 (by the American Indian Movement). Following Wounded Knee, my brother Johnny took over as AIM chairman, leading it from 1973 through the late ‘70s.

The exhibit also features a comic book collection featuring Native American super heroes, as well as non-Indian super heroes taking on the role as Native American warriors. The catch here, though, is that some of the non-Indian ones used racial stereotypes in telling their stories.

Native American super heroes, including one who gained his powers from commodity cheese laced with chemicals.
Native American super heroes, including one who gained his powers from commodity cheese laced with chemicals.

Blansett organizes the Trudell Lecture Series, an annual event that honors Johnny for his activism and social leadership. It features Native Americans – such as Dr. Amy Lonetree and actor Adam Beach – discussing a range of topics.

For more information on “Not Your Indians Anymore: Alcatraz Takeover and Red Power 1969-71,” please visit here.