Years ago, Kent Blansett stood on the bow of a ferry boat in the San Francisco Bay and looked toward Alcatraz Island.
To most of his fellow tourists, the island and its prison evoked stories of infamous criminals. Names like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and The Birdman of Alcatraz.
But Blansett had other reasons for visiting the island. And, as the boat approached the dock, they crystallized before his eyes.
In faded paint, above a sign declaring the island a federal penitentiary, a greeting: “Indians Welcome.”
“It was the first time that I’d seen a welcome sign as a Native person in my own country that made me feel welcome,” said Blansett, who is descended from the Cherokee, Creek, Chocktaw, Shawnee and Potawatomi Tribes. “There was a sense of freedom that that sign gave. Chills that went down my spine, because I was like ‘Oh my gosh. I get it.’ ”
The message and others, still visible on the walls of the former prison, are the few remaining remnants of the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz by Native American activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The island takeover is now considered one of the defining moments of the era’s “Red Power” movement, in which the nation’s indigenous people fought for the rights to control their own land and resources.
This month, Blansett, associate professor of history and Native American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, opened a new on-campus exhibit that chronicles the occupation and profiles its key figures.
The exhibit, housed in UNO’s Criss Library, will remain in Omaha through Aug. 10. From there, it will travel around the country, eventually landing on Alcatraz Island, now under the control of the National Park Service, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the occupation.
The collection serves as a kind of prelude to Blansett’s upcoming biography of Richard Oakes, the Akwesasne Mohawk leader of the occupation. The book, “A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement,” will be released by Yale University Press in September.
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While researching Oakes, Blansett collected photographs, press clippings and other artifacts that detail the Alcatraz takeover. Many of the items in the exhibit are from his personal collection.
“It’s not just giving an overview of the events of the occupation, but also the historical context and bringing it forward,” said Amy Schindler, director of archives and special collections at the Criss Library. “This wasn’t an event that just started and ended and that’s it. There were things that happened before, and there were things that happened after.”
After Alcatraz’s famous prison closed in 1963, the rocky island was mostly abandoned. In 1964, a small group of Lakota activists landed on the island and claimed it under an 1868 treaty that ceded federal surplus land to Native people.
The protest lasted only a few hours. But in its wake, calls for Native control of the island persisted.
Oakes had established himself as a key figure in the growing American Indian rights movement by helping found one of the nation’s first Native American Studies departments at San Francisco State University.
On Nov. 9, 1969, after reading a lengthy proclamation to reporters and offering to buy the island for $24 in beads and cloth, Oakes and a group of activists persuaded a man sailing a Canadian vessel to take them around Alcatraz.
“For Richard, that wasn’t going to be good enough. He wanted to go where the boat wasn’t going to take him,” Blansett said.
As the boat neared the island, Oakes pulled off his shirt, called for others to join him, and jumped into the frigid waters of the bay, swimming 250 yards to shore. Four others followed suit, but the protesters were quickly removed.
Still, Blansett said, the event marked a monumental turning point.
“A lot of scholars say that’s the time when we actually start, through (Oakes’) actions, to see self-determination for Native peoples,” he said. “This idea of sovereignty, taking power into our own hands — the right to control our own destiny.”
On Nov. 20, after securing passage to the island in the wee hours of the morning, the occupation began in full. It would last for another 19 months.
The federal government insisted that the protesters leave the island, but adopted a policy of noninterference, hoping support for the occupation would dissipate, according to writings by American Indian Studies professor Troy Johnson. Authorities were instructed not to forcibly remove the protesters.
The activists, under the name Indians of All Tribes, wanted full control of the island, hoping to establish a Native American university, cultural center and museum on it. But, to the occupiers, the island also held a powerful symbolic appeal, Blansett said.
“There was no running water, no electricity, no power. There were no mineral resources. No employment. No jobs. No prospects whatsoever,” he said. “In fact, it represented most reservation communities and Indian Country in general.”
As the months went by, the population on the island ebbed and flowed. Protesters slept in cellblocks and former administrative buildings, Blansett said. Oakes was called “mayor” of Alcatraz.
Omaha native and Santee Nation citizen John Trudell served as the movement’s spokesman, broadcasting to the public as “Radio Free Alcatraz.” Trudell, who died in 2015, used the broadcasts to update listeners on the status and goals of the occupation and to interview prominent organizers. One of these was Grace Thorpe, daughter of legendary football player and Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, who headed public relations for the occupation.
“We’ve got a lot to lose and a lot to win,” Trudell said of the movement in one broadcast.
The protest attracted headlines and magazine stories nationwide. Celebrities of the day, including Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando, visited the island to show their support. Rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival donated money for the occupiers to buy a boat.
But as the movement continued, infighting among the occupiers and declining public support took their toll. In 1970, Oakes and his family left the island after Oakes’s stepdaughter, Yvonne, fell to her death from one of the buildings. In June 1971, federal authorities swarmed the island, removing the remaining occupiers.
Oakes continued to be a leader in the Red Power movement after leaving Alcatraz. Because of his work, he endured several threats on his life, Blansett said.
In 1972, an unarmed Oakes was shot and killed by the caretaker of a YMCA camp. The man who shot Oakes, claiming self-defense, was eventually found not guilty.
Today, the occupation of Alcatraz is viewed largely as a success in galvanizing support among Native people for direct social action. As a result of the movement, several pieces of legislation asserting Native rights were passed, Blansett said.
Still, he said, it’s a story that goes largely untold.
“Native history is not a part of our standard statewide curriculum across the United States,” he said. “The more awareness that we have spawns more unity and enables us to understand how diverse we are as a continent. ... It showcases one of America’s greatest strengths. Our diversity.”