Stories from the Road: Alcatraz
Looking out across the water, I don’t even want to imagine swimming in it. While technically I know it is a bay and not the ocean, that doesn’t do anything to change the depth and ferocity of the waves slapping against the side of the commercial boat paid to ferry passengers back and forth all day. Glancing over my shoulder, I try to replicate the estimation that the journey from shoreline to island (or vice versa) is feasible. I guess that’s what makes the escape attempt involving the three men who supposedly made it to San Francisco so appealing. The mystery of whether swimming from Alcatraz back to civilization is actually impossible, or just seems it to those without the right composition of determination and cause.
As the boat nears the dock, I find myself thinking about other people who also saw the bay waters conquerable. After Alcatraz’s time as a prison was officially over, Native American activists occupied the island and added even more energy to the burgeoning Red Power movement. In 1969,when their boats passed by the island, activists estimated that their cause was more powerful than the dangers of the water and jumped overboard to swim to shore. At least they only had to swim part of the way, I think to myself as the boat glides into position in the dock. Even though it is July, the cool wind whips through my hair and I am forced to look up at the stone and metal walls of the visibly crumbling, but also supposedly preserved prison. While I know that the island is owned by the Parks Service and has gone through plenty of renovation efforts, it is still a daunting and ominous mass above me. There is no comfort to be found here, even all these years later.
Walking up the steep incline leading to the cluster of buildings, I look back at San Francisco glinting in the distance and compare it to the faded stone structure in front of me. Reconsidering my earlier stance on the fact that the activists only had to swim part of the bay, I am forced to weigh the end goals. For the prisoners who supposedly survived, they had independence and, hopefully, the comforts of life ahead of them. Yet, when the activists jumped, they were purposefully choosing an unknown political future on this harsh and unforgiving island. Both were on daring quests for freedom and each saw their destination as better than where they had been. But, even as the sun helped to mitigate some of the effects of the wind skimming off of the water, I could feel the pressures of this perpetually damp and daunting place. What sort of courage and determination would it take choose this life?
When we first began planning a trip to San Francisco, I knew that Alcatraz was at the top of the list of places that I wanted to see. There is something alluring about a prison that is only accessible by ferry and a history full of notorious criminals and potential escapes. (At least, there is to me.) Besides understanding its general geographic isolation and a very limited and glamorized version of its history, I knew nothing else about the Rock. What I also didn’t know was that a book assigned for one of my classes would change my perception of Alcatraz before I even set foot on the island.
One of the last books on my semester syllabus was Like a Hurricane by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior. It happened to come in from the library just a few days before our trip out to California and I tossed it in my bag to help occupy the long flight from East to West Coast. Only once I pulled it out, did I realize that the full title of the book was Like a Hurricane:The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. In a convergence that sounds just a little too weird to be real, I was on my way to California with Alcatraz tickets already purchased and an assigned book about that exact subject. From the first pages of the book, I could already feel my interest in Al Capone or possible prisoners escapes fading. The most exciting thing to happen on Alcatraz didn’t involve people swimming away from the Island; it involved people swimming towards it.
The history of the island now known as Alcatraz and the United States government began in the late 1840s. Although it was originally designated simply as a military garrison, there have been prisoners on the island longer than the time when history deems it a ‘penitentiary’. Plenty of books can mark the intricacies of the roughly one hundred years between the opening of the military barracks and the closing of the prison in the early 1960s, yet surprisingly, the National Parks Service website for Alcatraz calls the American Indian occupation ‘perhaps the most influential event in the island’s history.’ (Just to be fair, it also claims that the occupation ‘saved the tribes and maybe the island too’. The situation that the tribe members were protesting was a direct correlation of years of colonization and inhumanity, so claiming they saved themselves makes it sound as it their destruction was a random accident they needed to save themselves from instead of a systemic campaign that they were constantly struggling against.)
In 1964, a group of Native American activists occupied the island and offered to buy it from the US government for the same price that officials had offered for Native lands. They were ushered off the grounds ,but this first round of protests garnered attention and planted the seed for the much bigger event that was coming. A few years later in 1969, another occupation attempt quickly took hold. The occupation began, as does Smith and Warrior’s book, with the story of activists jumping overboard and swimming to the island. The same activists I was thinking about as I began the climb to the up from the docks.
As the Parks Service owns the entire island, it is something of a time capsule in a way that other parks are not. This also means that the Parks Service exerts a level of control that it may not otherwise. Which is why I was stunned to see graffiti from the time of the Native American occupation still tagged on buildings. Generally, America does a terrible job of respecting and preserving Native American history, so to get off the boat and immediately see ‘Indians Welcome’ was unexpected. Hopefully the graffiti also functioned as a confusing catalyst for those visitors who were less informed about the social movement’s time on the island. (Read here about the Parks Service water tower rehabilitation project that brought activists and family members back to recreate the famous words that were once painted across it.)
When people think of Alcatraz, most likely they are not thinking of the Indians of All Tribes and the movement that fostered there. Most likely they are imagining gangsters and prisoners, similar to me before reading Smith and Warrior’s book. Because my expectations were low, I was surprised at the open and upfront way the Parks Service presents this time in history. The exhibit room on the occupation is small, in comparison to the others, and a little hidden, but, as there are other artifacts on display throughout the building, it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to combine them all in a bigger space.
My biggest lingering concern upon leaving the site, was the seeming lack of Native American governance or control. I have not been able to find any mention of co-ownership or even some form of profit from the site. While I had trouble finding an estimate of visitors per year, considering that it seems to be universally considered one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions, the number must be substantial. Part of the reason that the occupiers selected Alcatraz was because history shows that Indigenous people were there long before the Europeans and their continued loss of respect, rights, and resources within the American system. Yet once again they are erased and distanced from the places directly tied to their ancestors and histories. Obviously, if there is no interest in co-governance or profit sharing from the Native American community, it should not be forced upon them. And, considering that the movement was called Indians of All Tribes, due to the myriad of tribal histories of the activists, it would be a complicated, but certainly doable task, to figure out how to achieve the proper representation in the decision making body.
Certainly another option would be to simply give the land back, as was an original goal of some of the activists. The tourist in me is hesitant towards this idea because I am so accustomed to and so fond of our National Park System. However, I also understand that such a view of land and history is problematic and comes from the larger societal acceptance of white supremacy. Taking land from others and then controlling and profiting from it is the entire history of the relationship between the United States and the Native Americans. Preferencing the history of Alcatraz as a garrison or penitentiary over the Native history is an act of white dominance. Ways to incorporate equity and equality in the governance and profit from Alcatraz is a complicated conversation, but one that needs to ensure representation for all the parties.