Alcatraz: A Metaphor for the Native Continuum

Jonathon Freeman

Oral histories tell of a time when there were villages on Alcatraz Island, only, at the time, it was not an island but was instead a hill that overlooked the great river flowing to the sea.

When you’re in a place like San Francisco, it can be easy to forget that well before the first buildings were ever built, or the first wagon trails were ever scratched into the earth, peoples lived there with entirely different worldviews and cultures — and ways to share and express both. There are many landmarks in the Bay Area that tell stories not only of local Indigenous Peoples but of Tribal Peoples throughout the state and country. Alcatraz is such a landmark, giving us a view into government policies and actions that attempted to wipe out Native Peoples and their cultures and also telling the story of how Native Peoples have not just survived but overcome terrible odds to bring back ancient art forms and develop new, exciting ways to express cultural views and meanings.

The region now known as California is made up of incredibly diverse ecological systems that have supported equally diverse Native cultures for thousands of years. In San Francisco, the Ohlone and neighboring Miwok are tribes that originated in this area. Their lives were rich with plentiful fish and other game in addition to the multitude of plants that provided a varied food supply. The tribes’ trade routes went well into what are now Nevada to the east and Washington to the north. When the Spanish arrived in 1769 they saw something quite different; they didn’t see a civilization, they saw something that had to be changed. When the Spanish explored the island that we now call Alcatraz they found small fishing camps and structures that they identified as altars to other gods, not their god. Here were more people who needed to be converted, or at least that is what the Spanish thought.

In California there are many histories of peoples living in what could be described as abundant civilizations. Most tribal peoples were far from barely scratching a living from the land. One anthropologic study estimated that Native Peoples living in the Sacramento River Valley had to work an average of only forty-one minutes a week to secure shelter and enough food to support a healthy daily diet. What did they do with all their remaining free time? They contemplated life, raised their families, and developed complex cultural and ceremonial practices that were expressed through a rich array of dance, song, story, and art. One has only to look at the basketry for which many California Native Peoples are famous to catch a glimpse of ways cultures were expressed through art. Intricate designs were woven into baskets, simultaneously sharing historical, metaphorical, prophetic, and aesthetic information.

By 1776 the Spanish missions had reached as far north as the San Francisco area. Mission Dolores, also known as San Francisco de Asís, was built, and the Ohlone people were subjected to the same coercion and forced conversion that the missions had already imposed upon other California Natives. Dances, songs, ceremonies, and other elements of culture were banned. Poor conditions and epidemics at the mission decimated the population. With Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, government support for the missions faded, and the lands controlled by the missions were sold or given away to private landowners. By this time many of the remaining Native Peoples who fled the missions had no villages to go back to and many ended up working for the ranches now on their traditional lands.

In 1848, as a result of the Mexican-American War, California came under American power; that same year gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. The darkest days in Native California history began with the newly founded state government’s policy of exterminating the Native population. California became a state in 1850, and in 1853 construction began on a military fort, complete with its own prison, situated on Alcatraz Island. During this time, things were so bad for Native Peoples in California that the federal government began to weigh in with its own policies of removal, assimilation, and reservations to settle the “Indian Problem,” with the intention of steering its citizens away from the deplorable murderous acts they were committing against Native Peoples. Ironically, shortly after, Natives who resisted these efforts started showing up at Alcatraz, as federal prisoners.

The military prison at Alcatraz was not just where California Natives were held but also others, such as Paiutes and Apaches. There is one well-known story of nineteen Hopis from northern Arizona who peacefully refused to farm individual allotments or to participate in the forced government education programs. They were arrested, marched, and shipped to Alcatraz, where they were imprisoned for eight months in an effort to break their resistance.

By the early 1900s, the California Native population had been reduced by 85 percent, and for the next sixty years the state and federal governments issued a dizzying array of policies of recognition, termination, assimilation, and relocation. San Francisco became one of seventeen cities selected as a destination of the Urban Relocation Program of the 1950s. Native Peoples were recruited and encouraged to leave their communities to start new lives in these cities away from their people and their cultures. The San Francisco area became home to Natives from all over the country, adding to the existing population of Ohlone, Miwok, and other California Native descendants.

Then, in 1969 groups of Bay Area Native activists and college students began a nineteen-month-long occupation of Alcatraz to call attention to the wrongs done to Native Peoples and to challenge the policies that were continuing to destroy Native cultures.

This act, reflecting a growing energy in Indian Country and a resurgence of pride, identity, and culture, combined with the other actions and movements of the day, not only helped end some of the harmful government policies but also strengthened many community-based efforts in rebuilding Native cultures. For many the occupation was a turning point. It was one of the first Native political protest actions to gain national news coverage and served as a symbolic birth of a unified, intertribal Native movement. The impacts were widespread, from the White House to the far corners of Indian Country. Following this action, community members sought out their elders, teachers, and culture bearers. They started learning the songs, practicing their language, telling the stories, weaving baskets, and learning about all aspects of their traditions. Soon the small embers of culture that had been hidden away and carefully tended began again to burn.

Some groups organized in formal nonprofit organizations while others kept the leadership and structure within culturally determined forms, at community and family levels. Through innovative and creative methods, combined with pure determination, Native Peoples continued to bring back what many thought was lost. Native artists, using contemporary mediums, began to express their cultures in new ways, while others used new technologies to preserve the old. Generations of young people began growing up never knowing a time when their people were not dancing their traditional dances, learning their languages, and practicing their cultures as their ancestors had from time immemorial.

What role have arts funders played in promoting this growth and resurgence? A small number of funders have seen the beauty and sophistication of Native arts and recognized the importance of maintaining the forms indigenous to this land. They have been able to give needed support, helping to revitalize what was nearly exterminated. Grants have helped groups establish centers, purchase materials now difficult to find in California’s hard-hit natural habitats, and record and preserve traditional practices for future generations. Some communities have never received assistance and still carry on with only what they themselves give to the work.

Revitalization in Native communities continues nationwide, as can be seen in the efforts to reestablish the Ohlone culture and presence in the San Francisco area. While there’s a wave of people returning to their reservations from the city, there are also other Native Peoples who migrate to the Bay Area, fleeing economic hardships and violence in other regions.

As landmark and symbol, Alcatraz still plays a role in Native communities today. Every year thousands of Native people gather on the island to celebrate and commemorate the continuance of Native cultures, including the arts through which they are manifested. After more than two hundred years — with Alcatraz being only one example of many similar struggles — the artistic expression of Indigenous cultures has endured, through strength, resilience, and love. Once an emblem of terror and tragedy, Alcatraz now represents hope for the future.