Looking back at a past occupation
A group of protesters receive international attention as they address government injustice while occupying a federal facility.
Nearly a half-century after he helped organize a lengthy standoff of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay by a group known as “Indians of All Tribes” that ultimately lasted 19 months, Adam Fortunate Eagle is still no fan of government bureaucracy. But make no mistake about it, the longtime Fallon area resident doesn’t see any similarity between Alcatraz and the occupation by militia members of a federal wildlife refuge near Burns, Ore., that began Jan. 2.
The Alcatraz occupation lasted from November 1969 until June 1971, when authorities removed a handful of protesters. Looking back, Fortunate Eagle said Alcatraz was about the Native American group claiming land it was entitled to, and also in protest of the Termination Policy of 1943.
“You’re talking about two different groups with two completely different purposes in mind,” Fortunate Eagle said, adding with a chuckle, “Those militant guys in Burns, Ore., want to take over federal lands … and the federal government took it over from native people without compensation. But Alcatraz was to stop the government’s takeover of the remaining 48 million acres of land under Indian control called reservations.”
Fortunate Eagle, 86, looks back with pride on his role as one of the primary organizers of the occupation. He said the island was declared surplus federal property when the Alcatraz penitentiary was closed in 1963. Since the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 provided that abandoned or out-of-use federal land was to be returned to the native people, then Alcatraz was available for reclamation.
“One of the unknown features of the occupation is we saved that island for the public,” he said. “And now, it is one of the major tourist attractions in the Bay Area with 1.3 million visitors each year.”
In 1969, however, the island was due to be sold off to the highest bidder, he added.
A special ceremony has been scheduled Feb. 13 at Alcatraz to commemorate 100 years of the National Parks Service. Fortunate Eagle said Native American veterans of the occupation are due to be recognized, and while he’s not attending, his granddaughter, Benayshe Ba Equay, hopes to give a presentation.
Much like the Alcatraz occupation did in 1969, the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon has attracted international attention. The refuge, which attracts visitors from around the world annually, was established in 1908. Before that, the area was home to the Paiute people until their forced relocation in 1878.
A group known as the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom is led by Arizona resident Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven, was at the center of a 2014 showdown with federal agents over grazing rights in Southern Nevada. This group has vowed to stay indefinitely in protest of what they say is the unfair imprisonment of two area ranchers — Dwight Hammond and his son, Steve Hammond — who were convicted of committing arson on federal property in 2001 and 2006. They are also requesting federal lands in the area be turned over to local control.
While the events of 2016 and 1969 focus on the use of federal land, that’s where the similarities end, Fortunate Eagle noted.
“We made sure that we would be warriors without weapons,” he said. “So in November of 1969, we started the occupation of Alcatraz. Peaceful. Non-violent. We took women and children out there in full tribal regalia. We had a beautiful Thanksgiving celebration and ceremonies on the island. We were not a threat to anybody. It just takes one incident to provoke violence. But on Alcatraz, for 19 months, there was no violence.”
Satire and humor were used as weapons instead. Just look at the proclamation declared at the time of the Alcatraz occupation:
“We, the native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.
“We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty:
“We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these 16 acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years.”
Humor is what helped turn the tables in favor of the Native Americans, if you ask Fortunate Eagle.
“That was a great public relations gesture because we got the public on our side in the Bay Area,” he said. “The government used Alcatraz to try and discredit us, to cut off the water, the power, and even at the outset, they blockaded the island for three days with the Coast Guard. But the good people from the Bay Area brought out supplies to help out.”
Fortunate Eagle has lived in the Fallon area for nearly 40 years. He said he basically lives in exile from the Bay Area, where he once operated his own termite business and taught sociology with an emphasis on Native American studies for 4-1/2 years at Cal State Hayward.
“When you Google me, you see Alcatraz! Alcatraz!, ‘Enemy of the state,’ all of those good things,” he said in a 2012 interview. “And yet, what I accomplished for Indians was a very positive thing. It went against federal policy, but I broke no law.”
There are no regrets whatsoever, he added.
“We stopped the giveaway in 1969,” Fortunate Eagle said. “We stopped Termination in July 1970, only eight months after the occupation. We backed the United States government down. President Nixon backed down. And then in 1972, the government switched their whole agenda for the island and created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
“So you see, we changed the course of history in a very positive way. I still give credit to the occupiers as a whole because they made it happen. They made it successful by their determination to hang on under extremely adverse conditions on that island.”