Alcatraz Island exhibit highlights Native American history

The American Indian occupation of Alcatraz may have ended in 1971, but the Native American presence still remains active in the Bay Area highlighted by the “We Are Still Here” multimedia exhibit on the island opening Nov. 20.

The exhibition not only tells the story of the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz, but aims to demonstrate that the struggles of Native Americas for tribal sovereignty and equal access to basic human services like education were finally brought to the national forefront and became the birth of the Red Power movement.

The exhibit, organized by SF State’s American Indian studies department, honors Richard Oaks, the former SF State student who in 1969 led the occupation of Alcatraz that proved to be a cataclysmic event uniting different tribes in solidarity to combat social injustice and forged a national movement.

“Most people who go to Alcatraz Island are completely unaware of this very important aspect of its history,” said SF State American Indian studies Professor Phil Klasky.

American Indian artists, Alcatraz veterans and activists, and students and faculty have come together yearly since 2009 to bring this event together, which includes audio interviews, photography, artwork and video collages on display.

“The history of the occupation is important because it was the first time our issues were put on the national spotlight,” said contributing artist Jose Garcia. “The last time the American public heard or placed any attention on indigenous people’s issues was when they were trying to exterminate us.”

The exhibit, which is housed in a former inmate band practice room, hopes to educate the public on the forgotten history of Native American Indians.

“There’s so much hidden history. It’s like we’re okaying genocide by not acknowledging that we’ve even done it,” said SF State senior Caitlin James. “Like the Holocaust, they teach that in Germany from grade school, so it doesn’t get repeated, so it doesn’t get forgotten. You can’t undo the wrong but you can acknowledge it and therefore prevent it from ever happening again.”

James also feels that an event like this works toward educating people as a way to make up for what their own education system has lacked, noting that she had never heard of the Alcatraz occupation before she attended SF State.

Along with educating attendees and honoring Oaks, the exhibit wishes to recognize all veterans of the occupation movement.

“The main motivation behind me accepting to do this artwork is because I actually know a lot of the original Alcatraz veterans. I developed personal relationships with people who gave up a lot of time from their lives,” Garcia said. “People who lost and fought a lot for whatever little we are able to still hold on for today. To give something back, to give a thank you for the original participants.”

The exhibit will be on display until February 2012.