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A Stance on the Rock

Setting the record straight on the Indian occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.


In late 1969, a handful of politically minded American Indians swam and boated ashore to Alcatraz Island. Eighteen months later, it was all over as U.S. marshals escorted the few remaining holdouts off the island. In between those events, the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island became a media event as Indians, politicians, hippies, rock stars and celebrities came and went from the island to see what all the fuss was about.

Some believe the Indians got little for all their trouble. Chief among their demands was that the famed but abandoned prison be transformed into an Indian cultural center, complete with museums and educational facilities. That didn't happen. Instead "the Rock" now belongs to the National Park Service and the thousands of tourists who cross the bay each year to see the dilapidated structure are probably more curious about Al Capone than Indians.

But Adam "Fortunate Eagle" Nordwall, the man the FBI labeled the "principle organizer" of the takeover, says it was not in vain.

What was accomplished there might not be clear in the eyes of most Americans--red or white--but those 18 months helped change Indian Country.

In Nordwall's new memoir, Heart of the Rock: The Indian Invasion of Alcatraz, he tries to set the record straight.

Nordwall arrived in San Francisco in 1951, little concerned about Indian politics or policies. He got a job as an exterminator, started his own business and family, bought a Cadillac and became a red version of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. But he also began to immerse himself in his own neglected heritage and the grim history of Indians and the federal government. By the mid-1960s, he was teaching Indian history at the local college (as well as at San Quentin) and rubbing elbows with dozens of equally dissatisfied Native American transplants from all over the country who had arrived in San Francisco on the coattails of the federal relocation policy.

When he played a supporting role in a bit of theater in 1964, as a group of Sioux paddled across San Francisco Bay, claiming they were confiscating Alcatraz based on a surplus property clause in the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, it surprised the groundskeeper on duty.

"Well, I guess if you want it, you can have it," he said.

But the federal government was less generous and within hours the authorities convinced the Indians to go back home, while the local press deemed the action "wacky."

Yet Nordwall saw possibilities in the overlooked island and five years later helped to stoke a far more serious Indian takeover of the island.

In 1969, he compared notes with other Indian activists in the area and plotted the famed takeover. The majority of those who followed him to Alcatraz--and in some cases ended up in the spotlight--were young kids in blue jeans, fresh off the reservations. Some were students. Many were unemployed. Most were angry and had had little to lose.

Which makes a point most historians who have considered Alcatraz have overlooked. Nordwall was an entrepreneur, a teacher and a man who was involved with a half-dozen Native American organizations. He had a family to support. In other words, he had everything to lose.

But as Nordwall points out, the people in charge didn't want anyone to lose anything. Officials with the Nixon administration began meeting with Nordwall and others to find a peaceful resolution. At least in the light of day, anyway. Recently redacted documents from the Nixon era tell another story, one of cloak-and-dagger escapades on the part of the White House to discredit the Indians. Meanwhile, well-meaning celebrities like Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda voiced support, and donations of food and money poured in from across the country.

What people didn't know, says Nordwall, was that things quickly began to unravel on the island. His job was to keep that news from general public.

In spite of the activists' claims that no booze and drugs would pollute the party, the island became a magnet for people looking for cheap thrills. Booze, drugs and girls were on the minds of many that flocked to Alcatraz. Nordwall says he quickly became disillusioned by the rock-star atmosphere and violence that escalated behind the scenes.

But a few years later, he says, none of that mattered. The Nixon administration announced the end of the disastrous, three-decade old "relocation" and "termination" policies that were destroying Indian Reservations. Instead, moves to let tribes govern themselves had been put in place. Those new laws signaled Washington's fresh approach to Indian Country and many historians and politicians say Alcatraz was their wake-up call.

In Heart of the Rock, Nordwall laments: "The trouble with the future these days is it lacks imagination. Not true then, not in the ending days of the sixties. Imagination, ideas, those were real then, not like now when you need technical training for them."

With the myriad of problems that still hobble Indian reservations to this day, one wonders if Nordwall's brand of imagination might still be in order.

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