50th Year Anniversary of Occupation of Alcatraz: LaNada War Jack Reflects Back

Dr. LaNada War Jack at Grand Valley State University reflecting on the Occupation of Alcatraz. Native News Online photograph by Levi Rickert

Guest Commentary
Special to Native News Online

Published November 20, 2019

The Occupation of Alcatraz is one of the most significant benchmarks in the history of the struggle for Native American political sovereignty. Native People  took a stand against the colonial powers and reconnected with their lost identities culture and spirituality. The taking of Alcatraz had an international impact with people worldwide. We further thank and give tribute to the Ohlone people whose land and territory this is. The California Indians suffered greatly during and after the genocide while today attempting to get recognition as Native Californians with their ancestral land holdings.

After the genocide and treaty-making period ended in 1871, Congress mandated that Native cultures, languages, customs, songs, dances, and ceremonies be illegal; these laws were enforced from 1880 throughout the 1950s. Native children were taken hostage, forced into government and Christian boarding schools to further ensure non-resistance by tribes. The physical, mental, and sexual abuse of these children led to a “cycle of dysfunction,” the trauma of which deeply affected future generations.

Life on reservation prisoner of war camps also denied people the ability to hunt and gather food throughout their territories. Many people starved. Under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, newly established Patriarchal tribal governments were enacted by Congress to speed up the assimilation and acculturation process. Mandating children into Christian and government boarding schools inevitably prevented these generations to loose their connection to their culture and respectful ways — the daily prayers, dances, songs, and ceremonies were crucial to acknowledging and bringing balance to the people and environment respecting all life.

LaNada Jack (then LaNada Boyer) at Alcatraz Island in 1970

Efforts to force Western civilization on Natives continued. Throughout the 1960s, the Indian Relocation Act through the Bureau of Indian Affairs organized under the Department of Interior continued to “assimilate Indians into the mainstream of American society,” sending young Native people into several of the largest US cities to aid the process of colonization. This initially successful policy backfired on the government when the “perfect storm” for activism developed in California universities. Natives who were relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area began to organize as identifiable coalitions. Many younger people decided they wanted professional degrees; San Francisco State and the University of California, Berkeley were magnets for these youths, who joined other ethnic students to organize and implement their own “Third World Studies.” Ethnic Studies advanced the inclusion of people of color who had been previously excluded from academic institutions and Western society at large. It was these students who went on to liberate Alcatraz Island in peaceful protest of the government’s ill-treatment of Native people and broken treaties.

President Nixon was the first and only president to date who took positive action to support Native American tribes, both in the cities and on the reservations. First, he stopped the Termination Policy PL280, which saw more than one hundred tribes terminated throughout the country, and gave state governments complete control over all the tribes in California, Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota. Nixon initiated fifty legislative bills and tripled funding to reservations for tribal governmental operations, health and social services, education, and gave millions of acres of land back. Alcatraz Island was never transferred back, but we won through our re-identification as Native people igniting our spirituality and pushing through a political agenda that would never have happened without this significant protest for our survival.

Now, here we are fifty years later, and our plight to overcome poverty, suicide, poor health, and education has slowly worsened to the point of crisis. We have been brought back to the “Termination Era” and the erosion of civil rights, with Black and brown people who are being discriminated against and killed because of the color of their skin. Concentration camps for Indigenous children and families, as well as refugees, are being implemented.

Due to federal and state interference, justice continues to be denied to Native people. One example, 2016 saw the Standing Rock Resistance protest the desecration of Native lands, sacred sites, and resources, all of which stemmed from centuries of broken treaties and unjust laws.

We will always defend and speak for the plants, animals, and natural elements because we still acknowledge a connection to the Earth. We are at a critical state with laws being pulled back to allow severe pollution of land, air, and water.  Many individuals the world over know what is happening here, except here because of the corporate owned media who prevents freedom of press. Many people have joined Native people in the struggle against all these harmful forces. This fight is not only our fight, but that of all people.

Indians of All Tribes and the Alcatraz Occupation today honor and acknowledge our Veterans on the fiftieth anniversary and are grateful for our ancestors and warriors who have sacrificed their lives including those taken to Alcatraz during the last wars in the west. We are bringing to the forefront the many issues of injustice, poverty, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Men (MMIW&M), Sacred Sites such as on Mauna Kea and Bears Ears, Standing Rock, Indigenous children and Migration. We want to unite with all people and stop this continued destruction of life and prolonged injustice. We need all people to become aware of climate change and support life with your prayers for world-wide peace.

Dr. LaNada War Jack was a student at the University of California at Berkeley when she help lead the Occupation of Alcatraz 50 years ago today. She is a tribal citizen of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes. She resides on the Fort Hall Reservation, Idaho. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1971. Dr. War Jack was on the founding board and executive board of the Native American Rights Fund. She served as an elected councilwoman for her tribes and served on many local and national boards. Dr. War Jack completed her graduate work at Idaho State University with a Masters in Public Administration and a Doctorate of Arts Degree in Political Science. Her book, “Native Resistance: An Integrated Fight for Survival and Life,” was released on November 11, 2019.

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