Sunday, July 14, 2019

Radio Free Alcatraz

Radio Free Alcatraz is one of my favorite things that happened in all of radio history So lets start at the beginning. Almost everyone is at least passingly familiar with the iconic Alcatraz prison.  The actual Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was a maximum security federal prison on Alcatraz Island. The 22 acre island is 1.25 miles off shore from San Francisco. Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the island in 1775 by as one of the three islands he identified as "La Isla de los Alcatraces." The name was an error. Alcatrace is Spanish for Gannets, a North Atlantic bird. Ayala had more likely seen Pelicans. More here.

You might be wondering about it's Native American history. Well, there doesn't seem to be much. The island was mostly bare rock, possibly with coastal grass and scrub. In 2001 The Alcatraz Island Historic Preservation and Safety Construction Program wrote "There is no record or remaining evidence  of prehistoric usage of Alcatraz Island by Indian Tribes." Lets discuss. It's possible that Native Americans determined that the bald rock in the bay wasn't very useful. The first Indians to "live" on the island would have been the 19 members of the Hopi tribe imprisoned there for seven months in 1895 for refusing to allow their children to be taken to government-run boarding schools.

Things got way more interesting in 1964 when five Sioux Indians: Richard McKenzie, Allen Cottier, Martin Martinez, Garfield Spotted Elk, and Walter Means landed on Alcatraz in March 1964 and tried to seize it. They invoked the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie as a legal precedent establishing their right to reclaim surplus federal land and filed a claim. This may have technically been Native Peoples first to attempt to settle on the island. Regardless of the legal merits of the claim Federal Marshals kicked them out.  Five years later they returned in much greater numbers. More here.

In 1969 a fire destroyed San Francisco’s American Indian Center. After the fire, Native American activists proposed re-establishing one on the now vacant Alcatraz. Their proposal was denied.
In multiple phases in November of 1969 Native American activists "colonized" the island anyway. The primary landing was on November 20th with 89 men, women and children. On Thanksgiving, 1969, an estimated 400 Native Americans gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving. The occupation would last another 18 months.

Prominent members of the movement included: Richard Oakes, Katherine (Jody) Beaulieu, Adam Fortunate Eagle, chairman of the BANAC (Bay Area Council of American Indian Affairs), Verna Clinton Tullie, Dean Chavers, Stella Leach, LaDonna Harris, Jerry Hatch, Allen Miller, Ron Lickers, Mickey Gemmill, and Gerald Sam, Carol Miller, Daniel Bomberry, Larry Benegas, Elaine Dempsey (Wintun), Ross Barden, Grace Thorpe, and both LaNada Boyer Means and Leman Brightman of UNA (United Native Americans). LaNada, was actually the first Native American student at U.C. Berkeley.

On December 22, 1969, KPFA began its first live broadcast from Alcatraz, hosted by spokesperson John Trudell, a Santee Sioux from Omaha, NB. Trudell had studied radio and broadcasting at San Bernardino Valley College and was a natural for the role. He interviewed residents of the island and visitors.  Al Silbowitz, then manager of KPFA got a grant and with Trudell installed some borrowed and donated radio equipment, on the main cell block building on Alcatraz.  Their programs aired on the Pacifica Network which consisted, at the time, of KPFA in Berkeley; KPFK, Los Angeles; and WBAI, New York. The program was somewhat irregular in schedule but was 15 - 30 minutes long.

The vision for Alcatraz was an egalitarian society. But due to the press attention some people naturally rose to prominence such as Richard Oakes and John Trudell. Oakes left the island with his family in January 1970 after his step daughter fell from a stairwell and died. His departure created a leadership vacuum. Vagrants and hippies began to settle on the island. Eventually non-Indians were prohibited from staying overnight. The native population at this time was about 50 people, 40 of whom were women.

Each episode of Radio Free Alcatraz began with a recording of Buffy Sainte-Marie singing "Now that the Buffalo's Gone." Buffy Sainte-Marie visited the island in person in May of 1970. But by June of 1970 the program was being recorded in the Pacifica Studios. The final program aired in September of that year.  More here.

In May 1970 the federal government began to transfer Alcatraz to the Department of the Interior and the National Park System. That's when the government shut off the electricity and telephone service. The same week the government removed their water barge. This left the occupiers with a small generator for power, butane stoves cooking and a severe water short age. When the barge was removed, different sources cited that they had either 70,000 or as little as 4,000 gallons of water. Then on the night of June 1st, 1971, provocateurs set a fire which destroyed several buildings. On June 11, 1971, Federal marshals invaded the island to remove the remaining residents. At the time, the residential population was just six men, five women and four children. More here.

The results were good and bad. In the years that followed, members of AIM (the American Indian Movement) organized occupations and protests at Plymouth Rock, Mount Rushmore, Wounded Knee, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and dozens of other sites across the country. Richard Nixon ended the Federal policies of termination and assimilation and implemented the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. But Richard Oakes was murdered by a white supremacist in 1972 and John Trudell's family were killed in a suspicious fire in 1979.

Today the Pacifica Radio Archive houses many recordings of Radio Free Alcatraz on 1/4” reel tape. Not all of these tapes are digitized yet. If you want to donate go here.

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