The first time the words “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land” appeared on the water tower at Alcatraz Island was during the Indian occupation from 1969 to 1971, the second time was just recently.
In October, when the water tower on Alcatraz Island was repainted by the National Park Service the graffiti on it was documented before it was covered so it could be recreated.
“We painstakingly documented the original graffiti on the water tower,” Alex Picavet, Golden Gate National Recreation Area spokesperson, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It’s the same color paint, everything is the same.”
About $800,000 went into refurbishing and stabilizing the historic water tower, even though it doesn’t work, and part of that process included a coat of fresh moisture-resistant paint. A coat of paint that covered the historic political message, one the NPS thought was important enough to recreate.
“This is a really important part of Alcatraz’s history and this was one of the most visible ways that this history stays present on Alcatraz, so it was important to the National Park Service that all visitors…have the opportunity to learn more about the occupation of Alcatraz,” Picavet, who is Osage, said.
She made it clear that the repainting and graffiti project didn’t cost much.
Dean Chavers, an ICTMN correspondent and director of Catching the Dream, was one of the 78 college students who took over Alcatraz Island in 1969.
“The Indian symbols on the Alcatraz water tower may not mean anything to the National Park Service authorities, but they mean the world to us Indians who were there. It is part of history,” he said.
In his story for ICTMN, “Alcatraz Occupation Four Decades Ago Led to Many Benefits for American Indians,” he called Richard Oakes, the Mohawk leader of the Alcatraz occupation, “a true visionary.”
Oakes was shot and killed in 1972 but was remembered during the refurbishment of the water tower on Alcatraz Island.
Picavet told ICTMN that Fawn Oakes, Richard’s daughter, and Elijah Oakes, his grandson, helped in the restoration process.
“It was meaningful to the National Park Service to have this cooperative effort between the Native American community whose history we share responsibility for preserving, and the federal government to repaint the messages,” Picavet said.
Fawn and Elijah—with artistic oversight from New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco and supervision from NPS—helped repaint the graffiti on the south side of the tank.
Picavet added that the graffiti on the tower is one of the few pieces of the occupation that is still visible in areas that are open to the public, which is why it was so important to preserve.
“It was before the days of spray cans being used; it was done with paint and brush,” Fairfax resident John Martini, a historian who was a ranger on Alcatraz from 1974 to 1976, told the Marin Independent Journal. “A lot of graffiti is political and the Park Service felt then and now it was important to keep.”
Picavet talked to ICTMN about other evidence that is left of the Indian occupation. There is graffiti on the dock when people arrive that says “Indians welcome” and underneath it says “Indian land.” She described one more that many wouldn’t notice unless they know it’s there. She said the word “Free” was scrolled into a shield in the emblem above the main door to the cell house.
Read Dean Chaver’s story about Alcatraz: