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A myth in the making: Alcatraz at 35

Indian Country Today: Nov. 13 marks the  35th commemoration of the occupation of Alcatraz Island.
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If a body of water is the mythic element above all others - and many Native traditions suggest as much - then the waters around Alcatraz Island may yet give rise to mythology of a kind people can make their own.

The East Coast, we remember every Thanksgiving, has its Plymouth Rock, and a related mythology based on facts so thin it's almost embarrassing to read the actual Pilgrim history. And the West Coast will have its Alcatraz if Adam Fortunate Eagle has anything to say about it - he is willing to donate his extensive archives on the Alcatraz period, before, during and after the occupation, to any consortium of tribes that will fund a museum of the occupation on the island. ''I will work to make that happen.''

Considering that no tribe, according to him, contributed funding to the 35th commemoration on Nov. 13, signs can't really be considered encouraging. But much in such a museum's favor is a substantial body of evidence that the occupation of Alcatraz Island was the turning point of Indian destiny in America.

Myth of their own
Just as it may not matter now that the Pilgrims were practically freakish in their rejection of civility wherever they encountered it, so many people have made the myth of Plymouth Rock their own; so it may not matter someday, not if Indians make an Alcatraz occupation myth their own, that the occupiers were a bit of a scattershot lot at best, more exuberant than strategic, more youthful than experienced, more inspired than wise.

Many left the island before the occupation's official forced ending on June 11, 1971, when only 14 were left. Many were drawn away by real-life obligations such as school and jobs and family; many had been disillusioned by the turn on the island toward social instability; many had in fact been drawn by the lure of dereliction masquerading as freedom. As reported in a most noteworthy Native Peoples magazine article from 1999, on the 30th anniversary, many had brought their addictions with them to an island that didn't stay enchanted for long.

From the day of an early attempted landing in November 1969, when the late Richard Oakes shed his shirt and plunged overboard, headed for the island against unswimmable currents (he and some followers had to be rescued finally), a great host of Indian people found themselves by crossing those same waters to Alcatraz. And millions of Americans found Indians again, in all of their distress, pride and potential. That is what matters.

Adam Fortunate Eagle insists on describing Oakes as the leader of the occupation, and himself as the organizer. It comes a little strangely from one whose contribution to Alcatraz has been to some degree cast aside, but it makes a larger kind of sense. Oakes, carefree and collegiate, charismatic and bright, came to typify the occupiers. He was almost destined to become a media darling once Fortunate Eagle recruited him to the Alcatraz occupation project at a Halloween party in 1969. He was a born leader who led by example, but the example he set was somewhat short on steady-as-she-goes stability.

Fortunate Eagle, known then as Adam Nordwall, was fortyish and prosperous. He didn't altogether appeal to the young people who would hurl themselves, some of them, headlong flaming down the radical trail of the American Indian Movement to a more famous occupation, at Wounded Knee Village in 1973. One of them told Native Peoples they launched their main occupation of the island on Nov. 20, 1969, because Nordwall was out of town.

Staying power
Once Nordwall arrived on the now-occupied island, he didn't stay but returned to mainland San Francisco and its suburbs. He was an idealist in those days, like all or most of the first-wave occupiers, but he also had a family and a business to think about. He kept on organizing in support of the occupation, as FBI and other documents suggest he did for years beforehand. But mainly he worked at what the occupiers ultimately lacked: Staying power.

Thirty-five years later, at a commemoration on the Nov. 13 compromise date between the several landings occupiers attempted, Fortunate Eagle still showed staying power. He stood with more than 100 people on the Rock, as Alcatraz is widely known. ''A handful of American Indian veterans of the ... occupation of Alcatraz lit the same pipe they had passed from one to another a generation ago,'' wrote a San Francisco Chronicle reporter at the scene.

One feels that pipe will pass on to an expanding circle of spiritual heirs. For as planned by its organizers, the occupation of Alcatraz made a statement that Indians are here to press their claims, fed up with oppression and determined to set right the things that concern them. ''The ominous clouds of termination were rolling across Indian country unimpeded, until Alcatraz stood up to them,'' Fortunate Eagle recalled.

Alcatraz had been planned as a peaceful Indian assertion of presence and of land rights, a strategic stand against termination that gained momentum from a multitude of other Indian advocacy events, conferences, statements and reports. Fortunate Eagle again: ''No other event put on by Indians was as positive as the occupation of Alcatraz ... It was just Indians, speaking on their own behalf ... If we had gone on [the island] as they went on to Wounded Knee ... we would have been off that island in a week.''

As it was, the occupation lasted for almost two years. During that time, by virtue of the occupation's impact on national opinion and within the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, termination came to an end as federal policy. Tribal self-determination took its place through Nixon's ''Special Message'' and at least a dozen major implementing policy strokes in the following years.

'Shutting down the system'
Tribal self-determination happened at the insistence of Indians. But without the repeal of termination as federal policy, none of the necessary political traction would have built up behind the Nixon-era Indian policy reforms. The decks would not have been clear, so to speak. Congress and the administration would not have gotten the running start they needed for the virtual revolution they wrought in Indian policy between Nixon's Special Message to Congress on Indian Affairs of July 8, 1970, and the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, followed by the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976.

The occupation of Alcatraz set the stage for the Nixon administration's successful effort to repeal termination as policy. As Fortunate Eagle describes the climate of the times, ''They were shutting down the system ... They were gonna empty the reservations [through the post-termination relocation program] so the white settlers could move in. Another Oklahoma land rush.''

But it didn't happen. Not only that but the tables turned forever. For perhaps the major message of Alcatraz was that Indians are here on the land and won't be terminated.

It's the stuff of myth in the making, all right. Meanwhile, on Nov. 13, more than 100 crossed the waters to Alcatraz.