On Jan. 4, 1895, the San Francisco Call newspaper reported under the headline “A Batch of Apaches” that “nineteen murderous-looking Apache Indians were landed at Alcatraz Island yesterday morning.” In fact, the 19 men were neither roving Apaches nor the murderers of inflamed popular imagination. They were leaders of settled agricultural villages in what is today northern Arizona, and they called themselves Hopitu-shinumu: “all peaceful people.”
What crime could peaceful people possibly have committed to lead the commissioner of Indian affairs to condemn them to “hard labor until . . . they shall show . . . they fully realize the error of their evil ways”? According to a second article in the Call, “Uncle Sam has summarily arrested nineteen . . . Indians . . . and taken them to Alcatraz Island, all because they would not let their children go to school.” The adjutant general who accepted the Hopi prisoners at Alcatraz seemed to affirm this, saying he would confine them “until they shall evince, in an unmistakable manner, a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards.”
But withholding children from school was not what sent these men to prison. Although Hopi resistance to forced education and other federal policies was widespread and a thorn in the side of the U.S. government, this particular arrest involved 19 “ringleaders” in a land dispute between two Hopi factions: those tagged “hostiles” by the government for their staunch resistance to assimilation efforts, and the less numerous but more sympathetic “friendlies.” Capt. Constant Williams, the acting agent at Fort Defiance (Ariz.), responsible for federal policy in Hopi and Navajo country, described the arrest in a report to Washington: “The troubles at Oraibi resulted from the disposition on the part of the hostiles to drive the friendlies from their fields. In the fall they drove the friendlies from the fields at Moencopie and in the spring, threatened to do the same thing at Oraibi. Nineteen ringleaders were arrested by U.S. troops and sent to Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Harbor. This action settled the question, at least for the moment.” The arrest represented not only an odd episode in American penal history, but also a significant chapter in Hopi history and a telling commentary on the U.S. government’s shifting policies toward its “Indian wards.”
Fighting for tradition
The Hopi still live in a string of remote villages along the fingers of Black Mesa on the Colorado Plateau. Village-based agriculturists, they are considered masterful dryland farmers, able to wrest several varieties of corn, plus beans, squash, melons, and cotton, out of arid land. They believe that this is where they were intended to live, and supported by an elaborate cycle of as many as 200 ceremonies a year to keep their world in balance, they have stayed for more than 700 years.
The village of Oraibi is thought to be the oldest continually occupied settlement in North America. Invaders disrupted that balance several times in modern Hopi history. Sometime in the 16th century, adaptable nomads called Navajo began to encroach on Hopi lands and raid their villages. In 1540, Spanish soldiers rode up from the south, pursuing rumors of seven cities rich with gold and turquoise. They brought aggressive missionaries who attempted, sometimes forcibly, to displace Hopi religion.
But even the often-brutal Spanish, and the Mexican administrators who followed them, left the land to the Hopi. The Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican War promised to maintain pueblo land rights. But barely 30 years later, in 1879, the commissioner of Indian affairs claimed the Hopi lands were public land. And unbeknownst to the Hopis, the U.S. government was developing plans to “civilize” them.
In the 1870s Congress shifted its Indian policy from containing Indians on isolated reservations to “civilizing” its “Indian wards” through formal education and other federal policies designed to encourage assimilation and discourage tribal culture. All treaty negotiation ceased in 1871. In 1879 the government opened the first of a string of Indian boarding schools to Christianize and “civilize” students. Then in 1887 Congress passed a General Allotment Act requiring that Indian communal lands be divided into tracts deeded to individuals.
The Hopis knew nothing of these laws. They knew only their own laws, preserved in extensive tribal narratives, precise ceremonies, and sacred tablets. But they did know how to deal with unwanted interference from outsiders. Abundant experience with Navajos and Spaniards had taught them to be proficient at the determined practice of passive resis-tance. It was a skill that in the 1890s led ethnologist Alexander M. Stephen, while attempting to record the details of the intricate Hopi ceremonial cycle, to exclaim in frustration, “Damn these tantalyzing whelps, to the devil with all of them! I have been bamboozled from pillar to post all day, have received no scrap of information.”
When the first local government boarding school opened in 1887 at Keams Canyon (Ariz.), 40 miles or more from most Hopi villages, the government in Washington, D.C., brought intense pressure on Hopi families to send their children. Some parents—friendlies from the closest villages—agreed, but most ignored the appeals. Even within the school, conflict began almost immediately. Hopi parents were mystified by the double standard that established days off for Christian holy days and celebrations but denied them for important Hopi religious occasions. When an adobe school was constructed at more conservative Oraibi, resis-tance grew. Only 13 students attended. School superintendent Ralph Collins requested enforcement from Fort Defiance, and on Dec. 28, 1891, soldiers entered the village and captured 104 children and forcibly enrolled them.
The following year, Oraibi parents refused to return their children to school after summer vacation. Collins wrote Washington that Oraibi villagers were “still requiring a demonstration of force to compel them.” By December 1893, when C.W. Goodman replaced Collins as superintendent, opposition remained; only 30 students attended the school. The first acting Indian agent at Fort Defiance, 1st Lt. S.H. Plummer, had his own misgivings. He wrote to the commissioner of Indian affairs that the school was in poor condition and that “if deaths occur, a strong prejudice will be aroused against the school, to say nothing of the policy of conducting a boarding school for any human pupils with such conditions and accommodations.” His superiors insisted he proceed. After gaining only frustrating “half-promises” from the Hopi parents tagged as hostiles, Plummer resorted to coercion, withholding annuity goods and stopping work on houses and wells in Oraibi. When that failed, he sent Navajo policemen, and later soldiers, to conduct raids.
Helen Sekaquaptewa, then a 5-year-old child of hostiles, wrote about her experience years later: “When September came there was no peace for us. Early in the morning we could see the principal and the officer . . . walking up the trail to ‘get’ the children. Hostile parents tried every day, in different ways, to hide us from them.” Meanwhile, the Hopis employed passive resistance to the allotment policy that alarmed almost all Hopis. During the first land survey in 1891, Hopis tore down the stakes as rapidly as surveyors placed them. The sympathetic Plummer wrote to Washington: “It has been the custom for years for these people to cultivate their lands in common. Owing to the shifting nature of their planting grounds, it would be almost impossible to maintain any allotment to individuals. . . . The best interests of the tribe would be promoted by granting the petition [to end allotment].” No petition was ever granted, but allotment was never implemented. It was finally abandoned in 1911.
Journey to the Rock
When a dispute broke out in 1894 over the use of certain productive agricultural lands, new acting agent Constant Williams traveled to Oraibi to hear the complaints. Loololma, leader of the Bear Clan, described how the more numerous hostiles had taken over the land of the friendlies, who “were seriously desirous of walking the Washington way: and . . . wished the soldiers to settle the difficulty.” Lomahongewma, Spider Clan, and Heeviima, Fire Clan, speaking for the hostiles, agreed with Loololma’s facts. Williams reported, however, “that they do not want to follow the Washington path; that they do not want their children to go to school; . . . that they want the white man to leave them alone and allow them to follow the Oraibi path.” On Nov. 24, Williams arrested 19 hostile “ringleaders,” those who refused to walk the “Washington way.” At Alcatraz, these unlikely prisoners were held in old, poorly ventilated cells. The three perceived as leaders were separated from the others. All were put to hard labor. Occasionally a group was taken to observe public schools in San Francisco “so that they can [see] the harmlessness of the multiplication table in daily application,” the Call commented.
Back in the Hopi villages, the prisoners’ families worried about their fates. Two children died in childbirth while their fathers were incarcerated. The prisoners’ fields were left untended, their clan and ceremonial duties halted. The families prevailed upon the Mennonite missionary H.R. Voth, living at Oraibi, to write letters, including one requesting that a photo of the prisoners be sent to allay rumors that some had died. The Alcatraz commanding officer complied with the request. In August 1895, officials sent word that the prisoners could return home as long as “a promise of good behavior . . . be extracted from every one.” No one knows for sure if such promises were extracted—the prisoners later said they were assured their children would not have to go to school—but on Sept. 23, after more than eight months on the Rock, the Hopis departed for home. (See “In 1969, Indians Take Back the Rock,” below.)
Saving centuries-old culture
The orders to attend school and allot land to individuals had the full force of American law behind them. But the desire of most Hopis to live and farm in ways grounded in centuries of history and practice was also a powerful force. The self-sufficient Hopi had never asked for anything from outsiders except to be left alone. Perhaps the isolation their leaders felt on Alcatraz Island was not so different from the isolation they sought in their efforts to maintain their ancestral homeland.
James P. Lenfestey writes articles and screenplays on historical and literary themes from his base in Ojai, Calif.
In 1969, Indians Take Back the Rock
Early on Nov. 20, 1969, 89 self-proclaimed “Indians of all tribes” landed on Alcatraz Island, six years after it had been closed as a penitentiary and declared surplus federal property. Parodying Christopher Columbus, the Indians said they were “reclaiming” it “in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.” The occupiers, mostly urban Indian college students led by Mohawk Richard Oakes, declared their intent to turn Alcatraz into an Indian cultural center and university.
Prominent Indian author and scholar Vine Deloria Jr., writing in The New York Times Magazine, March 8, 1970, called the occupation a “dignified, yet humorous protest against current conditions existing on reservations and in cities.”
For trade goods and cloth
Indeed it was, at first. The Indians issued a proclamation containing an offer to buy the island for “twenty-four dollars in trade goods and cloth”—more, they knew, than Manhattan Island had brought. “But we know that land values have risen over the years,” they said. The occupation galvanized Indians throughout the country who were reeling from federal laws that terminated reservations and policies that relocated families to cities. Joined off and on by hundreds of these new activists, and supported by volunteers, donations, and occasional celebrity sympathizers such as actress Jane Fonda and folksinger Joan Baez, the occupiers held Alcatraz for 19 months.
Initially, media coverage was intense and public sympathy poured in from around the world. But when serious negotiations with the government broke down and the government cut off electricity and water, life became difficult for the occupiers. A grieving Richard Oakes departed after his stepdaughter was killed in a tragic fall down a stairwell. Then a fire destroyed several old structures. Leaderless, the remaining occupiers were in disarray. On June 11, 1971, federal marshals, on orders from President Richard Nixon, landed on the island and removed the last remaining Indians: ten adults and five children.
But all was hardly lost. According to Craig Glassner, an authority on the subject at the National Park Service, the Indian occupation of Alcatraz may have been the island’s most significant historical event. “Al Capone was at Alcatraz. That is an interesting event, but it didn’t change history,” he said in a recent interview. “The Indian occupation of Alcatraz changed history. It led President Nixon in 1970 to end the policy of termination of reservations. It played a part not only in changing government policy but [also] in raising national awareness and Indian pride.”
John Trudell, a Santee Sioux who took part in the occupation, agrees. “What ended up happening at Alcatraz . . . brought warmth back to the collective spirit of us as a people,” he says in Red Power: The American Indians’ Fight for Freedom by Alvin Josephy Jr., Joane Nagel, and Troy Johnson.
Today 1.3 million annual visitors to Alcatraz Island, now operated by the National Park Service, are treated not only to its striking location and history, but also to a respectful exhibit on the Indian occupation and the Indian prisoners once incarcerated there. And twice a year, on Columbus Day and Thanksgiv-ing, an Indian group called the Interna-tional Indian Treaty Council holds a sunrise ceremony on the island. The event is open to the public, so “re-education,” this time by Indians, continues on Alcatraz to this day.—James P. Lenfestey