The 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native American activists has been curiously forgotten by mainstream American society, which is a shame since this incident was the turning point in the movement by America’s indigenous population to regain their heritage and land. “Alcatraz is Not an Island” is a fine new documentary which details this breakthrough in the “Red Power” movement, offering a compelling look into this audacious attempt by Native Americans to redress centuries of persecution and suffering.
“Alcatraz is Not an Island” begins in the 1950s, when the federal government instituted Relocation/Termination Programs to lure Native Americans off the reservations and into major urban centers, primarily to integrate them into American society but also as a means of snatching away what little land remained in the tribal nations. Many Native Americans were resettled in the San Francisco Bay Area, and by the mid-1960s young Native Americans attending college there were caught up in the spirit of political activism and began to focus their unique cultural voice on the mistreatment of the American Indians. A rare chance for high-impact political theater took place when a loophole revealed that Native Americans were entitled to government surplus land…and a pretty slice of surplus land was well positioned right off San Francisco in the form of near-vacant Alcatraz Island, home to the shut-down prison.
“Alcatraz is Not an Island” mixes rarely-seen TV news footage and home movies plus interviews with those who took part in this daring venture, providing an engrossing dissection of the planning and emotions that went into the takeover and occupation of Alcatraz Island. Even by the standards of the time, the takeover was stunning, catching the Nixon Administration completely off-guard and delighting the media with a unique tale of cultural turned-tables. The initial influx of occupiers was soon joined by scores of other Native Americans, who easily slipped through impotent Coast Guard blockades of the island, and a new media star was born in Richard
Oakes, a handsome Mohawk organizer who served as spokesman for the occupiers and called for the creation of a Native American cultural center and university on the island. Even Hollywood got in on the act, with celebrities including Anthony Quinn and Jonathan Winters showing up to lend moral support to the crusade.
But not unlike many good ideas, the Alcatraz occupation went on too long and ultimately did not achieve its goals. Over time, public support and media attention waned as the Native people on the island began to fight among themselves regarding control of the movement. Richard Oakes was forced to leave the island when his young daughter was killed after falling through a deteriorated stairwell in one of the Alcatraz buildings. By the end of the occupation, only about a dozen people (mostly women and children) remained and they were easily escorted off by squadrons of armed federal agents, who quickly reclaimed the island. While the Alcatraz cause was lost, the Native
American people found a new urgency to press for long-denied civil rights, which continued throughout the 1970s in occupations of other federal properties including the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. Soon, President Nixon saw the political expediency of embracing this cause and began a policy (the first in American history) of returning land taken away from tribal nations.
“Alcatraz is Not an Island” tells a remarkable story which has long been absent from the American conscience. Filmmaker James M. Fortier won the Best Documentary Award at the American Indian Film Festival for this feature, which also was an official selection for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Hopefully, “Alcatraz is Not an Island” will see wider distribution and find a larger audience for this important chapter in American history.