The Renaissance on Alcatraz 50 Years Later

Theda Newbreast and Betty Cooper, both of the Blackfeet Nation at the Alcatraz Sunrise Ceremony Photo by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, Dine’ and Taskigi, published with permission.

James Browneagle, Elem Pomo, at the Alcatraz Sunrise Ceremony Photo by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, Dine’ and Taskigi, published with permission.

In the age of extractors, Alcatraz is renaissance and renewal

During the 50th Anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz, Flashpoints host Dennis J. Bernstein talks with Lakota Bill Means and Dine' Lenny Foster

Article by Brenda Norrell
Censored News
Listen to KPFA Flashpoints

SAN FRANCISCO -- On the ferry from San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz, Lakota Bill Means says it is a good day, a day that is symbolized by Alcatraz as a prison, and by the Occupation of Alcatraz that was the beginning of the movement.

"It's good to be here, it is the renaissance of the movement," Means told radio host Dennis J. Bernstein on KPFA's Flashpoints.
Dine' Lenny Foster said Leonard Peltier, a symbol of the movement, is suffering in prison.
"They are afraid if they release him, he would talk and inspire a nation," Foster said of Leonard Peltier, in poor health in Coleman Prison, a high-security prison for male inmates in Florida.
"They want to basically kill him because he is a symbol of the resistance. He is our Nelson Mandela. He is our Geronimo."
Approaching Alcatraz on the ferry, Means said the prison on Alcatraz represents the relocation and boarding schools that have confined Native people -- but Alcatraz also represents the students from the University of California Berkeley and San Francisco State who took Alcatraz and occupied it.
Means remembered the Hopi who were imprisoned here. "If you wouldn't become baptized, you would end up here."
"All of these things come to mind when you come to Alcatraz."
"When you come here, you are regenerated."

Lenny Foster and Bill Means at the AIM West Eagle and Condor UnThanksgiving in San Francisco, during the 50th Anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz Nov. 2019.
Photo by Agnes Patak

Means said the resistance began to build with the Occupation of Alcatraz and the fight for Treaty rights was on. The fight against the corporations taking the Black Hills was underway.
At the same time in the 1960s, there was the anti-war movement, the movement for Chicano rights, and the movement for Civil Rights.
It was all happening at the same time.
The organizing began in communities, beyond the politicians.
"We caught on to that, it was very exciting times."
As people traveled from place to place, Means said people would take them into their homes, people of all colors.
"But also there were a lot of people dying. They made the ultimate sacrifice."
Means said people were lynched down south during voter registration drives and the Freedom Rides.
"There was a lot of no-compromise."
Still today, Means said the gold miners are on the Black Hills, and the mining companies are there.
"Power has diminished through the BIA and other colonial instruments that they use."
The Black Hills are full of minerals. Now there is mining contamination and the mines use huge amounts of water. Resounding the words that became synonymous with the resistance at Standing Rock, Means said Mni Wiconi 'Water is Life.'
Hopeful in these times, Means said today non-Indians are now becoming involved. 

Alcatraz Sunrise Ceremony 2019 Photo by Agnes Patak

KPFA's host Miguel Molina asked Means about the legislation signed by President Trump regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Molina said, "It was like he wasn't even paying attention."
"No sincerity in what he was doing. It lasted five minutes and it was over."
Means said some of the tribal leaders are under the influence of Trump. He said assimilated Indians are the ones chosen to work on these issues.
"That is the way it is in the colonial governments called tribal governments."
Bill Wahpepah began to revive the tradition of UnThanksgiving and the numbers have grown, Means said, as thousands arrived to attend the 50th Anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz.
Means said those who went first deserve a lot of credit.

Lenny Foster photo by Karen Wright 

Radio show host Bernstein introduced Lenny Foster, Dine', as spiritual advisor for Leonard Peltier.
Foster said, "I was here 50 years ago. I was 21 years old at the time."
Remembering coming here as a Colorado State University student in Fort Collins, Colorado, Foster said it has been a long hard struggle for Indigenous people. Still, the Treaties have not been fulfilled or upheld.
"It was perhaps one of the most profound statements that Indigenous could make," Foster said of the Occupation of Alcatraz.
Today, however, the Treaties still have not been honored and there is strip mining and uranium mining. There is a concern for the people who live around the mines and there is the fight for water rights. There is the struggle to protect the water, including the huge Ogalalla Aquifer which could be poisoned by an oil spill.
Foster said of the Five Fingered People, Human Beings, Indigenous Peoples are leading the struggle.
Describing his work with Native Americans and their rights in prisons, Foster said Leonard Peltier is now in Coleman I Penitentiary, which is a supermax, and currently Peltier is enduring a month-long lockdown. It makes it very hard, with the lack of fresh air and sunlight.
"It's been very difficult for him."
Lenny said Peltier defended the honor of the community, the women, elders and the children, and pushed for Treaty Rights.
"He is a symbol of resistance."
"They are afraid if they release him, he would talk and inspire a nation."
Foster said Peltier is 75 years old and in ill health. Peltier has high blood pressure, diabetes and recently underwent open-heart surgery.
Describing his small cell, Foster said, "It's very difficult for him to be confined."
"They want to basically kill him because he is a symbol of the resistance."
"He is our Nelson Mandela. He is our Geronimo."
Lenny shared the importance of the fire and sunrise.
Remembering the first Occupation of Alcatraz, he said, "It was the beginning of a renaissance in the Indian world."
Traditional prayer and ceremonial practices were revived.
Now, the movement has gone throughout the Western Hemisphere to the tip of South America and beyond to the Pacific. "It has touched all Indigenous People."
Foster said the ancestors would be glad to see the prayers and ceremonies here this day.
"Prophecies are being fulfilled today."
"We are the evidence of those prayers."
At dawn on Alcatraz, Rumšen Am:a Tur:ataj Ohlone Tribal Chair Dee Dee Ybarra welcomed the more than 4,000 gathered. She encouraged all to celebrate in unity with all people.

"We want to welcome all of you and give everyone a good memory of being here."
"These are troubling times. We need to stand in unity," Ybarra said, calling for the protection of the land and water and of one another.
Speaking on the historical genocide of Native people, she said of today: "The bad thing is that it is our own people doing it."
Sharing goodwill and speaking in her own language as the traditional singers prepared to begin, she said, "Many blessings and good fortune to all of you, all my relations."

The students who occupied Alcatraz 1969 -- 1971 chose the name 'Indians of All Tribes.' In the years that followed, the American Indian Movement grew with the Trail of Broken Treaties, takeover of the BIA in Washington and Wounded Knee in '73. Bill Means, Lenny Foster and Dee Dee Ybarra are longtime members of the American Indian Movement. Bill Means' father Walter 'Hank' Means and brother Russell Means led the first Occupation of Alcatraz on March 08, 1964.

Listen here to the full Flashpoints program on KPFA:

Meet Photographer Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie 

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, Dine' and Taskigi, is a professor in the Native American Studies Department at the University of California, Davis. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, she moved to Rough Rock on the Navajo Nation in the mid-'60s. "My father was called back to the community to be an illustrator at the Rock Rock Demonstration School," she said. She attended Rough Rock Demonstration School and later Chinle High School. After studying one quarter at Navajo Community College, she transferred to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. From there, she attended the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. "As a Two-Spirit person the politics of the Bay Area was welcoming, so I made California my home away from home." After graduating from CCAC, she worked as a graphic designer and photographer at the San Francisco Indian Center, and later in Oakland at the Intertribal Friendship House. She was a freelance photographer in her early years and then entered graduate school at the University of California, Irvine. She began teaching at UC Davis in 2004.


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