Adam Fortunate Eagle was 40 in the fall of 1969 when he helped orchestrate the occupation of Alcatraz Island.
The 19-month peaceful protest was the longest Indian occupation of a federal facility in history, and it helped shape federal Indian policy for the next half-century. Although Fortunate Eagle did not live on the island during the occupation, he helped organize the group Indians of All Tribes and wrote the proclamation calling on the U.S. for recognition and better protections for Natives.
Nearly 50 years after the occupation began, Fortunate Eagle, now 87, answers questions from ICMN.
What factors led to the occupation of Alcatraz?
There were three events leading up to Alcatraz, the causative factors. We go back to 1933 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took control of Germany. One of the first things Hitler did was require the Jews in Germany to list all their assets.
Ten years later, while World War II was going on and 35,000 Native Americans were serving, the BIA sent out a memo to all federally recognized tribes telling them to list their undeveloped resources. When tribes did this, the government found that 80 percent of uranium reserves, 30 percent of coal and 10 percent of oil and gas was on Indian land. The government wanted all that, as well as timber and water and the 48 million acres of land the tribes had left. That was like Déjà vu.
The second event was in 1947 when William Zimmerman, acting commissioner of Indian Affairs, was instructed to prepare a list of tribes to be terminated. Then in 1953, House Resolution 108 passed, launching termination policy.
The third thing was the urban relocation program that started in 1958. Instead of isolating Indians on reservation, the government turned around and shipped them to major cities.
How did these events spur an organized protest like the occupation of Alcatraz?
The causative factors, basically, were mistrust and frustration. We were helpless before the government. We were considered wards of the government. Even reservations were under federal trust status. The government could control damn near everything we did—except the relocated Indians who were free and independent people and who could speak out and act.
Under the relocation program, suddenly the San Francisco Bay area saw an influx of Indian people. When our reservation brothers and sisters couldn’t speak out because the government held purse strings, we as urban Indians had to speak out.
What were your goals for the occupation of Alcatraz?
I wrote the Proclamation to the Great White Father and All His People. It took me a year, and I decided to use satire and humor as a weapon. When I organized the group, I said we would be warriors without weapons. We would have no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons. We circulated the proclamation among the media and we used satire and humor to get the public on our side and they came out in full support of us.
I didn’t want us to be militant. I didn’t want the occupation of Alcatraz to be like other protests going on. I wanted us to be non-violent. And we succeeded. If you look at the news stories from that time, they were almost all positive.
When President Nixon officially repudiated the termination policy, we knew we’d won. We won for the first time in our history.
In 1972, when the government declared Alcatraz part of the National Park Service, we knew we’d also saved that island for the public, not for private enterprise.
How did the occupation of Alcatraz shape federal Indian policy?
We succeeded in more ways than the government wanted to admit. The occupation changed the course of history. The tribes of America all got a boost of confidence. If you look at history, going all the way back to the Dawes Act of 1887, the government took away 90 million acres of land and tribes were helpless to do anything about it.
The government also outlawed customs, religions and practices. In the Wounded Knee Massacre, the government showed incredible force against Indians when we spoke out or acted in a way that was detrimental to policies.
We acted out at Alcatraz, but we were peaceful and non-violent, and we won. It was the first time in history that Indians ever stopped a takeover of our lands and resources.
Because of Alcatraz, Nixon ended termination. Then in 1975 we got the Indian Self-Determination Act, which gave us more self-rule and more self-government.
In 1978, we got religious freedom and in 1988 we got Indian gaming. All of these were important turning points in our history. The occupation of Alcatraz laid the groundwork for this.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m an 87-year-old man now, almost 88. I didn’t study history; I lived it.