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Native Americans honor Alcatraz 50 years later

Eloy Martinez, who took part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz 50 years earlier, looks over a group photograph showing the occupiers displayed in an exhibit on the island in San Francisco on Nov. 12. -- AP photo

SAN FRANCISCO — For Eloy Martinez, returning to Alcatraz Island meant a joyous reunion with people he hadn’t seen in decades. It also brought a renewed sense of pride and hope.

Martinez was among about 150 people who took windy boat rides to the island Wednesday for the first of three days of events marking the 50th anniversary of the island’s takeover by Native American activists. Martinez, who is Southern Ute, was one the original occupiers.

“It’s a day full of smiles, seeing all the people that we hadn’t seen — some I hadn’t seen in 50 years,” the 80-year-old said. “I wish . . . indigenous people could all be here and see all these people here today making the statement that we’re still here, and we’re going to be here, and we’re still resisting, and we’re not quitting.”

The occupation began Nov. 20, 1969, and lasted 19 months. Although it ended with people being forcibly removed from the island, it is widely seen as a watershed moment for tribes, reinvigorating them to stand up for their land, their rights and their identities. It also helped usher in a shift in federal policy toward self-determination, allowing tribes to take over federal programs on their land.

On Wednesday, speakers shared stories from the occupation and discussed its continuing relevance, including the inspiration it provides for today’s indigenous protesters, like those fighting a planned giant telescope on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Native Americans play ball games at the main dock area on Alcatraz in San Francisco during their occupation of the island in this 1969 photo. This week marks 50 years since the beginning of a monthslong Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations. -- AP file photo

They also helped restore messages painted by occupiers on a former barracks building at the Alcatraz dock. The words read: “Indians Welcome,” “United Indian Property” and “Indian Land.”

Dennis Turner, who is Luiseno, was among those who wrote the original messages, and was there to help restore them. He said activists at the time felt they needed to take a stand for all Native Americans.

“That’s why people came here — to protect our tribal nations, sovereignty, our traditions, our religion and our sacred medicine that keep our tribal nations powerful,” Turner said.

Jason Morsette attended the anniversary events with his mother, Geneva Seaboy, another original occupier. He said he’s grateful that she and other activists were willing to fight for Native Americans’ land and treaty rights.

“Just to be out here and feel the impact of what they did to seize this compound and actually be a part of history . . . it’s unbelievable,” said Morsette, who is Dakota/Chippewa and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.

Anniversary events also included the opening of an exhibit on the island called “Red Power on Alcatraz: Perspectives 50 Years Later,” which features posters from the occupation, newsletters, photographs, film, skateboards and information on the occupation’s organizers. It also includes political buttons that illustrate how the movement influenced the 1972 presidential race.

The items come from the personal collection of Kent Blansett, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has written about Alcatraz. Blansett said presidential candidates in the 1970s were trying to appeal to Native Americans who captured the attention of the federal government with the Alcatraz takeover.

Blansett said the occupation resonates with students he teaches because it started with people attending universities in the greater San Francisco area.

“It really wakens my students to what they can actually accomplish and what they can do, that they’re not limited to making change in their lifetimes,” he said.

The exhibit in the New Industries Building will be up for 19 months.