Alcatraz Occupation Four Decades Ago Led to Many Benefits for American Indians

When 78 Indian college students took over the Alcatraz Island prison in San Francisco Bay on November 20, 1969 to protest the poor treatment of Indians in schools and the hated termination policy, none of us had any idea that our actions would have such a lasting impact on Indian policy in the U.S. But since that time, the federal government has clearly changed from anti-Indian to pro-Indian, at least according to some Indian people. Termination of Indian treaties was the law of the land in 1969.

President Richard Nixon reversed that policy and declared termination to be dead in 1970 as a direct result of the Alcatraz occupation. Since then, Congress has passed at least 16 laws that make life better for Indians. Browning Pipestem, Otoe, was the lawyer for the occupiers of Alcatraz. He had gone to law school with a young attorney on the White House staff, and the two of them “back-channeled,” according to Browning, for months. (The occupation lasted until June 11, 1971, a total of 19 months.) Nixon constantly wanted to know what was happening with the occupation—he wanted to know when the Indian college students had occupied the island, why they had done it and what they wanted to happen because of what they were doing.

Nothing official was written or declared, but whenever Nixon wanted to know what was going on with the occupation, Browning would call either me or Richard Oakes, the leader of the Alcatraz occupation, and then pass along whatever information he had gathered to his lawyer-friend in the White House. Browning, who also pushed for the end of the destructive termination of Indian treaties and for the right of tribes to govern themselves, apparently told the president (through his conduit) almost everything that happened on the island. Up to that time, Congress had passed some 5,000 laws dealing with Indians, and most of them were bad for Indians. Nixon was an early supporter of termination in the 1940s and 1950s, but he announced the most important change in Indian policy in 1970—the year of his “self-determination” speech, which was delivered on July 8, 1970. He said federal policy would no longer call for terminating the treaties between the U.S. and Indian tribes; instead, the federal policy would be self-determination.

I see Browning’s input all over that Nixon declaration—he wrote this type of rhetoric in frequent messages to the White House. Congress supported Nixon’s policy a few years later and started passing laws that were positive for Indians.

Alcatraz Indian occupation


A group of American Indians, part of the Indians of All Tribes Inc., occupying the former prison at Alcatraz Island.

They have tried to make life better for Indians, but they have a long way to go. A century of racist treatment and abuse will take another century to correct. And some things can never be corrected, including the physical and sexual abuse Indian children suffered in boarding schools, and the loss of two-thirds of Indian lands between 1888 and 1938.

Some reservations such as Pine Ridge and Hoopa still have unemployment rates of 85 percent and Indian education is still substandard. Indian health care still has many gaps; Indians still die from heart disease, tuberculosis and diabetes at much higher rates than the general population. Congress and the president had terminated 113 reservations between 1953 and 1966, including several that had many tribes forced onto them. The most important thing that has happened since 1970 is the restoration of federal recognition of tribes. Starting with the Menominee in 1973 and the Siletz and Klamath a few years later, Congress has restored most of the tribes that were terminated. But many are still terminated. The current statistics from my forthcoming book show the following:

• Number that have been recognized again by the federal government: 78

• Number that are still not recognized by the federal government: 35

• Number that have been recognized by state governments: 10

• Number that are landless: 31

• Number that are now extinct: 24

• Number that have casinos: 35

Congress has since passed a number of positive laws for Indians after passing thousands of negative laws from 1788 to 1953, and some other good things have been put in place as well. Here are the major ones, in chronological order:

• Congress passed the Indian Education Act (IEA) in 1972. Sen. Robert Kennedy had launched a national study of Indian education in 1968. When he was killed, his brother Teddy continued the study, which was published in 1969. He then introduced a bill to improve Indian education, which was passed in 1972. It provides supplemental funding to some 1,100 school districts. Despite that help, Indian education is still the worst in the nation, with a 50 percent dropout rate, test scores that are almost always below the 20th percentile and the lowest rate of college attendance in the nation—17 percent, compared to more than 60 percent for the nation.

• The Indian Health Service (IHS) budget more than doubled between 1970 and 1975. The problem was that its budget had been anemic before 1970. The IHS, which operates or contracts for 180 Indian hospitals and clinics, still has a 35 percent vacancy rate for its professional positions. Indians were literally dying while they waited to be seen by a doctor at overcrowded Indian hospitals and clinics. God help urban Indians, because the hospitals wouldn’t. If you were from South Dakota and got sick while in Albuquerque, chances were the hospital would tell you to go home to be treated.

• The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 began the process of bringing self-governance back to Indian country. Prior to

Alcatraz Indian Occupation 1969

Oakes (left) spokesman for the occupiers, negotiating with a U.S. Attorney on the island, 1969.

the act, tribes had little power and authority—the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) determined where Indian children went to school, what leases on Indian land, timber, water and minerals were contracted, what payments were made to individual Indians of welfare and other monies and other important matters. After this act was passed, tribes could contract to operate these services themselves—everything from tribal government to tribal courts, jails, tribal enrollment, education, social services and other important functions.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission was established in 1975 following the Boldt decision—by federal judge George Boldt in 1974—which ruled that the Indians of Washington were entitled to half the salmon and steelhead in Washington state. The commission was the brainchild of Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, who started fish-ins in the 1950s to protect Indian treaty rights. The state of Washington had been violating those rights, insisting that Indians could not fish off their reservations, ignoring the fact that the treaties the Indians of Washington signed with the federal government in the 1850s promised that if they agreed to relocate to reservations they could fish and hunt as they always had. The main job of the commission has been to limit fishing and let the fish stock be rebuilt. The tribes are now enforcing their laws in regard to fishing on their rivers.

• Nixon established the Office of Indian Water Rights to protect the most precious Indian resource in the dry West. Water is more precious than gold to Westerners. The Winters doctrine of 1908 reserved the right of an Indian reservation to have enough water for its uses. Indians have taken many beatings in the battles over water on reservations. Farmers, miners, ranchers, loggers, resort operators and developers had done all they could to extract every drop of water for their operations. The city of Los Angeles, for instance, drained a lake on an Indian reservation at Bishop, California and shipped that water to Los Angeles. The office represents tribes in water negotiations, basically enforcing the Winters doctrine, which guarantees Indian reservations first rights to waters flowing through the reservation. The doctrine had been ignored hundreds of times between 1908 and 1974.

• Congress passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in 1976 to improve the health-care system under IHS. It includes a program of scholarships to Indians to study medicine, dentistry, psychiatry, nursing and pharmacy. This program has funded the education of more than 8,000 Indian students in health-care fields.

• The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978. After outlawing Indian religions for a century and punishing Indians who practiced their religion, the federal government stopped suppressing and prosecuting Indian people for practicing their religion. Among the specific things the government had outlawed were the sun dance, the bear dance, potlatches, giveaways, the use of peyote in religious ceremonies, the use of sweat lodges, the use of sacred sites and the use of eagle feathers in Indian religious ceremonies.

• The BIA created the Branch of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) in 1978 in response to requests from tribes for reversal of the termination of their treaties and in response to tribes seeking federal recognition for the first time. Without congressional authorization, the BIA laid out the criteria for tribal recognition and had it published in the Congressional Record, making the process official if not legal. Over the next 20 years a total of 350 tribes and groups that claimed to be tribes applied for federal recognition. The BAR has never had federal authorization or approval, but it has assumed the power of life or death over recognizing Indian tribes.

• Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, which let tribes have some input in the adoption of Indian children and the placement of orphan children. This was in response to the fact that 25 to 35 percent of Indian children were taken away from Indian parents by non-Indians. They went to adoptive homes, foster homes and child-care institutions. The intention of the BIA and the missionaries was to destroy Indian tribes, languages and cultures by destroying Indian families.

• Congress also passed the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act in 1978. It authorized the operation of community colleges on Indian reservations. Within a decade there were a handful of tribal colleges, and today there are 36. They have made important contributions to Indian country, including an employment rate of graduates that ranges between 85 and 90 percent, compared to only 55 percent employment in Indian country overall.

• Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 at the request of Nevada and New Jersey gaming interests. They did not want the competition from Indian tribes that was emerging in southern California, New York, Florida and Connecticut. It established the federal National Indian Gaming Commission to regulate and monitor Indian gaming in the 300-plus tribal casinos that are now operating.

• Sen. Daniel I. Inouye, D-Hawaii, sponsored the legislation to found the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989. The museum is located in Washington, D.C. and is part of the Smithsonian. It has a special mission to preserve traditional Indian arts, relics, cultural objects, religious objects and other artifacts, many of them stolen from tribes and individuals over the past four centuries.

• The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in 1990. It requires the return of sacred objects to Indian tribes, mainly from museums that had acquired them in the 1800s. These include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. Hundreds of thousands of Indian cultural objects were removed from reservations by curiosity seekers, museum curators, traders, university professors and others. More than 32,000 human remains have been returned to Indian tribes for proper burial since this was passed. Hundreds of thousands of other objects have been returned to Indian tribes from agencies and museums that receive federal funding.

• The Native American Languages Act passed in 1990, but Congress gave it no funding. This act reversed 121 years of federal policy intended to strip Indians of their identity. This became official policy in 1869, when President Ulysses S. Grant accepted the recommendations of a group of missionaries that called for (1) confining Indians to reservations; (2) forcing their children to attend school and learn English; (3) required them to stop hunting and learn to farm like white people and (4) eventually lose their Indian identity. Our occupation of Alcatraz made it clear to many people in the U.S. that most Indians had no desire to lose their languages or their identity. In 1991, Congress approved funding for the act, and it has been in effect ever since.

• Congress passed the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act in 1996. A major study by a national housing commission appointed by the White House found that 30 percent of Indians were living in inadequate housing. Many lacked adequate sanitary facilities, running water and electricity. Forty percent of Indian housing was overcrowded, compared to only six percent for the nation. More than 90,000 Indians were unhoused or homeless. Phones were rare on rural reservations. Some 25 percent of Indian homes had no indoor plumbing, a rate that was 20 times the national rate. There was an immediate need for 200,000 units of housing in Indian country. The assumption that Indians would eventually leave reservations and assimilate into the mainstream was found a century later not to be happening. Congress finally realized that Indians were not going to die off or go away and authorized additional funding for Indian housing.

• Tribal departments of education are a recent development in Indian country, despite having been launched by Patricia Locke in the early 1970s. The funding from Congress has allowed only a small handful of tribes to start tackling the many problems facing Indian education.

These 16 federal laws and programs have started to improve life for Indians on reservations. But despite these sometimes massive efforts, the White House and Congress have bollixed up Indian affairs so badly that it will take several generations to make life significantly better for Indian people. So while many people thought we were crazy for taking over an island prison in San Francisco Bay, the changes that protest set in motion have been positive and long-lasting. There were many occupations and sit-ins in Indian country in the two decades following Alcatraz, but Alcatraz was the first. The Mohawk leader of that occupation, Richard Oakes, was a true visionary.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a scholarship and school improvement organization in Albuquerque. His latest book is Racism in Indian Country from Peter Lang Publishing. His next book is Broken Promises: Termination of Indian Treaties and the Aftermath.

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