Native Americans honor 50th anniversary of Alcatraz takeover

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Ruth Orta leads a prayer during ceremonies for the 50th anniversary of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in San Francisco. About 150 people gathered at Alcatraz to mark the 50th anniversary of a takeover of the island by Native American activists. Original occupiers, friends, family and others assembled Wednesday morning for a program that included prayer, songs and speakers. They then headed to the dock to begin restoring messages painted by occupiers on a former barracks building. Orta was one of the original occupiers. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – For Eloy Martinez, returning to Alcatraz Island meant a joyous reunion with people he hadn’t seen in decades. It also brought a renewed sense of hope and pride.

Martinez was among about 150 people who took windy boat rides to the island Wednesday for the first of three days of events marking the 50th anniversary of the island’s takeover by Native American activists. Martinez, who is Southern Ute, was one the original occupiers.

“It’s a day full of smiles, seeing all the people that we hadn’t seen — some I hadn’t seen in 50 years,” the 80-year-old said. “I wish ... indigenous people could all be here and see all these people here today making the statement that we’re still here, and we’re going to be here, and we’re still resisting, and we’re not quitting.”

The occupation began Nov. 20, 1969, and lasted 19 months. Although it ended with people being forcibly removed from the island, it is widely seen as a watershed moment for tribes, reinvigorating them to stand up for their land, their rights and their identities. It also helped usher in a shift in federal policy toward self-determination, allowing tribes to take over federal programs on their land.

On Wednesday, speakers shared stories from the occupation and discussed its continuing relevance, including the inspiration it provides for today’s indigenous protesters, like those fighting a planned giant telescope on Hawaii's Big Island.

They also helped restore messages painted by occupiers on a former barracks building at the Alcatraz dock. The words read: “Indians Welcome,” “United Indian Property” and “Indian Land.”

Dennis Turner, who is Luiseno, was among those who wrote the original messages, and was there to help restore them. He said activists at the time felt they needed to take a stand for all Native Americans.

“That’s why people came here — to protect our tribal nations, sovereignty, our traditions, our religion and our sacred medicine that keep our tribal nations powerful,” Turner said.

Jason Morsette attended the anniversary with his mother, Geneva Seaboy, another original occupier. He said he’s grateful that she and other activists were willing to fight for Native Americans’ land and treaty rights.

Being at Alcatraz and seeing their role in history was “unbelievable,” said Morsette, who is Dakota/Chippewa and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.

Anniversary events also included the opening of an exhibit on the island called “Red Power on Alcatraz: Perspectives 50 Years Later,” which features posters from the occupation, newsletters, photographs, film, skateboards and information on the occupation’s organizers. It also includes political buttons that illustrate how the movement influenced the 1972 presidential race.

The items come from the personal collection of Kent Blansett, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has written about Alcatraz. Blansett said presidential candidates in the 1970s were trying to appeal to Native Americans who captured the attention of the federal government with the Alcatraz takeover.

Blansett said the occupation resonates with students he teaches because it started with people attending universities in the greater San Francisco area.

“It really wakens my students to what they can actually accomplish and what they can do, that they’re not limited to making change in their lifetimes,” he said.

The exhibit in the New Industries Building will be up for 19 months.


Follow the AP’s complete coverage of the occupation of Alcatraz:


Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.