Alcatraz Is Not an Island, 1999 (Open)

Alcatraz Is Not An Island, (Festival Premiere at the AIFF 1999, Sundance Screening  2001, national PBS Broadcast 2002-2006)

Millie Ketcheshawno and James Fortier after receiving the 1999 AIFF Best Documentary Feature Award, along with Producer Jon Plutte and Editor Mike Yearling (not pictured).

Executive Producer: Millie Ketcheshawno (Mvskoke)
Producer: Jon Plutte
Writer, Cinematographer, Director: James M. Fortier (Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation -Formerly The Ojibways of the Pic River)
Associate Producer/Historical Consultant: Dr. Troy Johnson
Editor: Mike Yearling

For thousands of Native Americans, the infamous “Alcatraz” is not an island, it is an inspiration. After generations of oppression, relocation and assimilation, a small group of Native American students from UC Berkeley and San Francisco State along with Urban Indians from the Bay Area began the occupation of Alcatraz Island in November, 1969. They were eventually joined by thousands of Native Americans, retaking Indian land for the first time since the 1880s. Alcatraz Is Not An Island is the story of how this historic event altered U.S. Government Indian policy and programs, and how it changed the way many Native Americans viewed themselves, their culture, and their sovereign rights. The story of the occupation of Alcatraz is as complex and rich as the history of Native Americans.

This Emmy Award winning documentary examines the personal sacrifices, tragedies, social battles, and political injustices many Native Americans experienced under the United States government policies of assimilation, termination, and relocation – all eventually leading to Alcatraz. Beginning with the struggle to establish American Indian Studies programs at Bay Area universities, the occupation of Alcatraz quickly became the springboard for the Red Power movement of the 1970s, which has been called the lost chapter of the Civil Rights era. After 30 years, Alcatraz Is Not An Island provides the first in-depth look at the history, politics, personalities, and cultural reawakening behind this historic event, which sparked a new era of Native American political empowerment and cultural renaissance.



A brief history of Alcatraz Island and the 1969-1971 American Indian occupation.

Jon Plutte, Benjamin Bratt, and James Fortier at the KQED Studios for narration recording session.

European discovery and exploration of the San Francisco Bay Area and its islands began in 1542 and culminated with the mapping of the bay in 1775. Early visitors to the Bay Area were preceded 10,000 to 20,000 years earlier, however, by the native people indigenous to the area. Prior to the coming of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers, over 10,000 indigenous people, later to be called the Oholone (a Miwok Indian word meaning “western people”), lived in the coastal area between Point Sur and the San Francisco Bay. Early use of Alcatraz Island by the indigenous people is difficult to reconstruct, as most tribal and village history was recorded and passed down generation-to-generation as an oral history of the people. A large portion of this oral history has been lost as a result of the huge reduction of the California Indian population following European contact and exploration. Based on oral history it appears that Alcatraz was used as a place of isolation or banishment for tribal members who had violated a tribal law or taboo, as a camping spot, an area for gathering foods, especially bird eggs and sea-life, and that Alcatraz was utilized also as a hiding place for many Indians attempting to escape from the California Mission system. Once Alcatraz Island became a prison, both military prisoners and civilians were incarcerated on the island. Among these were many American Indians. The largest single group of Indian prisoners sentenced to confinement on Alcatraz occurred in January 1895 when the U.S. government arrested, tried and shipped nineteen Moqui Hopi to Alcatraz Island. Indian people continued to be confined as prisoners in the disciplinary barracks on the island through the remainder of the 1800s and the early 1900s.

SFSU American Indian student leader, Richard Oaks (Mohawk)
UC Berkeley American Indian student leader LaNada Means, nee Boyer (Now Dr. LaNada Warjack).

In actuality, there were three separate occupations of Alcatraz Island, one on March 9, 1964, one on November 9, 1969, and the occupation that lasted nineteen months that began on the 20th of November, 1969. The 1964 occupation lasted for only four hours and was carried out by five Sioux, led by Richard McKenzie. This short occupation is significant because some of demands for the use of the island would resurface almost word for word in the larger, much longer occupation of 1969. Adam Nordwal (Chippewa), who was joined by Richard Oakes (Mohawk) and other Indian Students from San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley, planned the Nov. 9, 1969 occupation attempt. Since many different tribes were represented, the name “Indians of All Tribes” was adopted for the group. They claimed the island in the name of Indians of all tribes and left the island to return later that same evening.

In meetings following the November 9th occupation, Oakes and his fellow American Indian students realized that a prolonged occupation was possible. Oakes traveled to the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA where he recruited Indian students for what would become the longest prolonged occupation of a federal facility by Indian people to this very day. A contingent of Indian students from UCLA was among the approximately 100 Indian people who occupied Alcatraz Island. It is important to remember that the occupation force was made up initially of young urban Indian College students. One of the most inspirational occupiers was Richard Oakes. Oakes was described by many whom knew him as handsome, charismatic, a talented orator, and a natural leader. Oakes was knowledgeable about the landings and the most often sought out and identified as the leader by local media. Once occupiers had established themselves on the island, organization began immediately. An elected council was put into place and everyone on the island had a job; security, sanitation, day-care, school, housing, cooking, and all decisions were made by unanimous consent of the people.

Photo by Ilka hartman

The federal government initially insisted that the Indian people leave the island, placed an ineffective barricade around the island, and eventually agreed to demands by the Indian council that formal negotiations are held. From the Indians side, the negotiations were fixed. They wanted the deed to the island; they wanted to establish an Indian university, a cultural center, and a museum. The government negotiators insisted that the occupiers could have none of these and insisted that they leave the island. By early 1970 the Indian organization began to fall into disarray. Two groups rose in opposition to Richard Oakes and as the Indian students began returning to school in January 1970, they were replaced by Indian people from the urban areas and from reservations who have not been involved in the initial occupation. The final blow to the organized leadership occurred on January 5, 1970, when Oakes’s 13 year old stepdaughter fell three floors down a stairwell to her death. Following Yvonne’s death, Oakes left the island and the two competing groups maneuvered back and forth for leadership on the island. The federal government responded to the occupation by adopting a position of non-interference. The FBI was directed to remain clear of the island. The Coast Guard was directed not to interfere, and the Government Services Administration (GSA) was instructed not to remove the Indians from the island. While it appeared to those on the island that negotiations were actually taking place, in fact, the federal government was playing a waiting game, hoping that support for the occupation would subside and those on the island would elect to end the occupation. At one point, secret negotiations were held where the occupiers were offered a portion of Fort Mason, in San Francisco, as an alternative site to Alcatraz Island.

Photo by Michelle Vignes
Photo by John Slavacek

By this time, mid-1970, however, those on the island had become so entrenched that nothing less than full title to the island, the establishing of a university and cultural center, would suffice. In the meantime, the government shut off all electrical power, and removed the water barge, which had provided fresh water to the occupiers. Three days following the removal of the water barge, a fire broke out on the island. Several historic buildings were destroyed. The government blamed the Indians; the Indians blamed undercover government infiltrators trying to turn non-Indian support against them. The ever-changing population on the island became a problem as time passed. The daily reports from the government caretaker on the island as well as testimony from the remaining original occupiers complained of the open use of drugs, fighting over authority, and general disarray of the leadership. An egalitarian form of government was supposed to prevail, yet no leadership was visible with which the government could negotiate. The occupation continued on into 1971 with various new problems emerging for the Indian occupiers. In an attempt to raise money to buy food, they allegedly began stripping copper wiring and copper tubing from the buildings and selling it as scrap metal. Three of the occupiers were arrested for selling some 600lbs of copper. In early 1971, the press, which had been largely sympathetic to this point, turned against the occupation and began publishing negative stories. In January 1971, two oil tankers collided in the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. Though it was acknowledged that the lack of an Alcatraz light or foghorn played no part in the collision, it was enough to push the federal government into action. President Nixon gave the go ahead to develop a removal plan—to take place when the smallest number of people were on the island and to use as little force as possible. On June 10, 1971, federal marshals, FBI agents, and Special Forces police armed with automatic weapons, and attack dogs swarmed the island and removed five women, four children, and six unarmed Indian men. The occupation was over. The General Services Administration proceeded to demolish several buildings in an attempt to thwart future occupations.

Photo by Ilka Hartman
Photo by Ilka hartma

The success or failure of the occupation should not be judged by whether the demands of the occupiers were realized. The underlying goals of the Indians on Alcatraz were to awaken the American public to the reality of the plight of the first Americans and to assert the need for Indian self-determination. As a result of the occupation, either directly or indirectly, the official government policy of termination of Indian tribes was ended and a policy of Indian self-determination became the official US government policy. During the period the occupiers were on Alcatraz Island, President Nixon returned Blue Lake and 48.000 acres of land to the Taos Indians. Later, occupied lands near Davis California would become home to a Native American university. The occupation of Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C. continued to escalate the confrontational activism established at Alcatraz. Alcatraz may have been lost, but the occupation gave birth to a political movement, which continues to today.



Alcatraz is Not an Island’ pick of nation’s elite film festivals

by Brenda Norrell

Today staff

PARK CITY, Utah – Alcatraz was always more than just an island, emerging as a symbol of resistance and renaissance for the spirits of American Indians dampened by urban assimilation and relocation.

“It brought heat, it brought warmth back to us as the collective spirit of Native people,” says Santee poet John Trudell in a new documentary. “Alcatraz is Not an Island,” selected for avant garde festivals nationwide, was chosen for the highly-competitive Sundance Film Festival in January, San Jose Film Festival in February and slated for the Taos Talking Picture Festival in April. It claimed best documentary at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

With sharp-spoken verse, superb cinematography and an incredible Native soundtrack, the voices of Wilma Mankiller, Vine Deloria Jr., LaNada Boyer and Robert Warrior tell the story of Alcatraz with fellow scholars and warriors. The action-packed, historical account details the loss of tribal lands, the occupation and the resulting trail of 20th century resistance.

The screening at the Sundance Film Festival was dedicated to its executive producer Millie Ketcheshawno, Mvksoke from Shell Creek, Okla., who died recently following a fall that resulted in a blood clot on the brain.

Director James Fortier, Ojibway, remembered Ketcheshawno for her dedication to American Indians spanning the 30 years since Alcatraz.

“Millie was an incredible woman. She had an incredible sense of humor, but was a serious woman, too. She was always very kind and accepting of people.But she never forgot her own experiences of boarding school, with assimilation and those at Alcatraz. We tried to capture that in the film.”

Ketcheshawno’s children, Leslie Deer and Gino Barichlo, joined the cast at the screening, which began with a Ute blessing offered by Larry Cesspooch.

Ulali sang “The Rock” from the soundtrack, and in the audience were those who spearheaded the occupation and held the rock, including Trudell, Boyer, Adam Fortunate Eagle and Robert Free.

Alcatraz tells of the urban relocation and termination policies that attempted to vanish Indian people from their lands and one another. But, in relocating Native people to urban areas, the government did not foresee that Indian groups would organize a firestorm of resistance.

“I felt like that was just the beginning of the transformation process,” Ketcheshawno says as she details her own story from boarding school, to relocation in the San Francisco Area to the ultimate occupation of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz was the symbol, the catalyst for liberation.But the actual occupation had a rough start, in fact there were a series of attempts to occupy the island. On March 9, 1964, American Indians briefly claimed the island as unoccupied federal territory after the U.S. penitentiary was closed. After the San Francisco Indian Center burned in 1969, Bay Area Indian activists said it was time to take the island and create a Native cultural and educational center. When Fortunate Eagle urged the occupation, people asked, “Why Alcatraz? It looks like most reservations anyway,he said. It’s removed from society, there’s no running water, unemployment will be very great and there’s not enough game to support the population. It’s typical of Indian reservations. It was a good kind of satire.” Fortunate Eagle told people if they didn’t like what they saw on Alcatraz, they should look around them at Indian lands.

During an attempt to take the island Nov. 9, 1969, a Canadian skipper declared to Indians onboard his ship that it would be an “act of war” to land under a foreign flag. Richard Oakes and others dove overboard and swam toward the island, but only Joe Bill made it.

Finally, a modern-day group of Sausalito boat runners, viewing themselves as modern-day pirates, took the occupiers across under the cover of darkness. Peter Bowen, at the time owner of the No Name Bar, was asked by Alan Miller to use his boat to ferry occupiers across the Bay. Bowen recalls viewing himself as a pirate and saying, “Terrific!” Once on the island Nov. 20, 1969, the group heard the watchkeeper call out, “May Day! May Day! The Indians have landed!”

Oakes was a dreamer, a steelworker who found spiritual renewal at Alcatraz, offering the government $24 in trade goods – glass beads and red cloth – for the island. The Mohawk leader said ships arriving in the West should first see the occupation of Alcatraz as a symbol of the continent’s first people. “Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea. It’s the idea that you can control your own destiny and self-determine your future.” Oakes said.

But Oakes also lost his young daughter Yvonne, who died from a fall at Alcatraz, and lost his heart to continue leading the movement on Alcatraz. The film details the final struggles, within and without, of the occupation which attracted 15,000 Indian occupiers and visitors. It tells of the destructive fire to the buildings, the government’s attempts to divide activists with dollars, and the trail of resistance that continued to Washington, D.C., and Wounded Knee in South Dakota. President Nixon repudiated the termination policy and Indian lands at Navajo and Taos Pueblo were among the first to be returned after the Red Power movement grew from the seeds of Alcatraz.

Trudell says Alcatraz was the strongest sense of community he has ever experienced. For Indian people it was the result of the termination, relocation and hopelessness of 20th century policies.”We were the statistics. We had just come out of this meat-grinder they call democracy,” Trudell said. Alcatraz changed him. “It was while I was there that I came to understand that the government was the enemy of our culture.”

Boyer, Shoshone-Bannock, earned a doctorate degree after Alcatraz. While a student at Berkeley, she was also a strong voice of Alcatraz. “Alcatraz was symbolic in the rebirth of Indian people to be recognized as a people, as human beings, whereas before, we were not.”

At the end of the film, Miller says of the Alcatraz story, “It is not over yet.”

On screen, scholar Troy Johnson joins American Indian historians Warrior, Deloria, Daryl “Babe” Wilson and Edward Castillo to document the history of United States policy and Alcatraz.

Tim Findley, former reporter for San Francisco Chronicle, provides intriguing accounts and Don Patterson, former director of the San Francisco Indian Center, tells of Bay Area Native history.

Fortier said efforts are under way to gain distribution through PBS in San Francisco. Final editing and the need for funds to purchase a license for the film’s music means nationwide distribution will not occur until the fall of 2001. After the Sundance screening, Free, who tells onscreen of pitching his tipi at Alcatraz, said he viewed the Sundance’s Native Forum as the result “of the sacrifices of the people of the movement. “It was a testimony to how far we’ve come, with the support of several tribes helping us produce our own images and tell our own stories.”

Brenda Norrell reports from the Southwest. She can be reached at (520) 490-8558 or by e-mail

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