Alcatraz pays tribute to Indian occupation
Updated 1:48 pm, Monday, January 14, 2013
The National Park Service does not usually approve of graffiti. "It's a federal offense," said Marcus Koenen, site supervisor for Alcatraz, the former prison that is now part of a national park.
However, the government has made an exception for graffiti left behind during the Indian occupation of the island - and it helped restore signs painted by hand on a landmark water tower.
"PEACE AND FREEDOM WELCOME HOME OF THE FREE INDIAN LAND," the writing says in red letters 4 and 5 feet high.
"We restored it because it has a social significance," Koenen said recently. "It is part of what this park is all about."
Most of the 1.5 million people who visit Alcatraz are drawn to the island by tales of its dark past as America's most feared prison, the dead end of the American justice system.
But Alcatraz has more than one story - and one part of its history is the Indian occupation from the winter of 1969 to the spring of 1971, when a band of American Indians seized the island after the prison closed. They hoped to turn it into an Indian cultural center, or perhaps a small university devoted to native studies.
"It would be fitting and symbolic," in the words of the Alcatraz Island Proclamation that the occupiers issued in 1969, "that ships from all over the world entering the Golden Gate would first see Indian land and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation."
The dream faded, and so did the political messages that the Indians left behind: "This is Indian land," one piece of graffiti painted in the main cell block said. "Custer had it coming" was written on another wall.
But the most visible signs of Indian presence were painted on the huge water tank, as tall as a 10-story building, that towers over the northern end of the island.
The tank and the steel tower that supports it had deteriorated and rusted badly since they were last refurbished more than 50 years ago. And the signs the Indians had left behind had faded so that they were barely legible.
The Park Service decided to rehabilitate the tank, which is one of the most visible structures on the island. The project took nearly a year and cost $1.5 million. The Park Service had traced the outlines of the original signs, and consulted with the American Indian Movement and the Indian Treaty Council.
The Park Service signed off on restoring the water tank signs. "We all agreed we were doing the right thing. We were honoring an important part of the island's history," said David Dusterhoff, project manager for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The signs were restored six weeks ago by Eloy Martinez, a Ute Indian who lives in Oakland. Martinez lived on Alcatraz during the occupation. The painters who worked on the reborn graffiti included Fawn Oakes and Elijah Oakes, both descendants of occupation leader Richard Oakes, who died in 1972 at the age of 30.
The Indian occupation attracted international attention and considerable support in its first months. The government negotiated with the Indians, and it looked for a time as if the occupiers might prevail. But support waned, and most of the original occupiers left the island.
Only 15 people were left on Alcatraz when the government retook the island and evicted them in June 1971.
However, the Alcatraz occupation had long-term effects. A new sense of activism among Indians helped force the government to abandon its policy of termination of Indian tribes, and Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975.
On Alcatraz, meanwhile, the Park Service, which became steward of the island in 1972, has opened new displays about the Indian occupation. But the biggest reminder is the graffiti on the water tank: INDIAN LAND.
"It is not something that people expect to see," said Koenen. "When you see this graffiti when you walk off the boat, it opens your eyes to the Indian story of the island."