1969-1971 Alcatraz occupation feted by first Native American cabinet secretary

Lee Heidhues 11.20.2021

It’s been 52 years since a group of Native Americans began what turned out to be the 19 month Occupation of Alcatraz.

The Native American population was decimated by the white Americans during their brutal trek West. The original inhabitants of the United States have been abused, murdered, placed on reservations and treated as second class citizens.

The nearly two year Occupation was an event heard around the United States to tell the World the Native Americans would stand their ground and fight for their rights.

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Excerpted from San Francisco Chronicle 11.20.2021

The crisp, clear San Francisco morning began with a prayer circle on Alcatraz.

Fifty two years ago, Native Americans from all over the U.S. touched down on the island to fight for Indigenous rights, where they would remain for 19 months in a landmark struggle known as the Occupation of Alcatraz. On Saturday, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a U.S. cabinent secretary, visited the island to highlight the progress made over the past five decades by Indigenous peoples.

“We’re in a new era in which we can embrace our identities as Indigenous people and be proud,” she said.

“I am here. We are here. And we’re not going anywhere,” she added, as cheers erupted from the tribal leaders listening to her speak.

As Haaland wrapped up her speech, birds chirped loudly overhead, almost drowning her voice out.

“Our relatives are speaking today as well,” she noted, smiling.

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Two year ago was the 50th Anniversary of the landmark landmark struggle that energized the Native American rights movement and brought together tribes from across the United States onto a 22-acre rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

“It was cold and miserable out here much of the time,” recalled Eloy Martinez, 82, who also goes by Seeker of Justice. “There was no water. But we were used to that, living on the reservation. That’s the way it still is.

“It was also an exciting time. Our adrenaline was running. For the first time, a lot of us felt free, felt together. You know how it is when you’re waiting for Christmas? It felt like that,” he said.

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Shoshana Arai, Tsuru for Solidarity, holds a poster with a collection of old photographs from 1970, which she brought along to Alcatraz Island for the commemoration of 52nd anniversary of its occupation.

With Haaland in the Cabinet, the federal government has taken a number of steps to support Indigenous communities. President Joe Biden this week signed an executive order addressing violence against Indigenous people and combating human trafficking and crime on Native American lands and announced protections for Chaco Canyon, a Native American heritage site in New Mexico.

On Thursday, the first-ever Native American head of the National Park Service, Charles “Chuck” Sams III, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

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Eloy Martinez, one of the original occupiers returned on the 50th anniversary in 2019

Biden’s infrastructure bill — which Haaland and other cabinet secretaries helped the president sell in Northern California — also put $13 billion toward Native American communities to help provide resources like high-speed internet and clean drinking water, Haaland noted.

On Friday, she formally declared “squaw” a derogatory term and said she is taking steps to remove it from federal government use.

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Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Alcatraz – 11.20.2021

“There is a racism in this country that continues to target Native people. Offensive names, mascots and rally cries are not a thing of the past, but their time has come,” Haaland said. “As long as I have a platform to speak from, I will stand against them.”