PARK CITY — A raft of cinematic fiction has been constructed around Alcatraz. We've watched Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery escaping from the Rock, and it was all very entertaining. But it's one of Alcatraz's true stories — about people who struggled to stay on the island, not escape from it — that proves even more compelling.

The American Indian occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971 has been called a lost chapter of the civil-rights movement, and few non-native people know much about it. But the takeover of the national park was a new beginning for native tribe members, according to James Fortier, director of "Alcatraz Is Not an Island," a documentary screening this week at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Alcatraz Is Not an Island" is part of the Native IV program, which has one more screening, at 9 p.m. on Saturday in the Yarrow.

Fortier's film mixes footage from the occupation and recent interviews with American Indians who moved onto, and eventually off of, the notoriously inhospitable island in San Francisco Bay. It also shows how the occupation galvanized American Indian tribe members, helping to cement their solidarity and the continued push for respect of their distinct cultures.

Among the leaders on Alcatraz was Richard Oakes, a Mohawk from upstate New York who was attending San Francisco State University in 1969. "He was an incredibly charismatic, intelligent, strong personality, a key organizer," said Fortier.

Crossing the Bay with his family, Oakes said, "Alcatraz is not an island. It's an idea. It's the idea that you can control your own destiny and self-determine your future."

The takeover in November 1969 "was totally nonviolent," said Fortier. "The media and the public supported it. There were no guns on the island."

College students led the occupation at first, but after a few months many returned to school, leaving about 100 tribe members on the island. "Other people came in, and they weren't as idealistic; they had competing agendas. The harmony eroded a little bit" at a time, said Fortier.

Throughout 1970, the people living on Alcatraz sought full title to the island and federal support for an American Indian university and cultural center there. But without a united front to negotiate with federal officials, the tribe members made no progress toward those goals. The last of the occupiers was taken off the island on June 11, 1971.

Now, visitors who ride Bay ferries out to Alcatraz can see "We Hold the Rock," Fortier's earlier film about the occupation. "Alcatraz Is Not an Island" was made to be shown on the mainland — on public television or in theaters. Its acceptance at the Sundance Film Festival, of course, can only help Fortier's chances of finding financial backing.

View Comments

"First and foremost, I hope people come away from the film with a better understanding of the struggle that native people had to go through just to maintain their culture," said Fortier, a member of the Metis-Ojibway tribe. "And it's not over yet. The struggle continues" among tribes such as the Goshute in Utah. "You can pick up a newspaper any day and find a story" about it, he said.

For example, the Goshute reservation may become a storage site for radioactive nuclear waste. "They're almost forced to take it," said Fortier. "They have no other economic initiatives."

The tribe needs the money that will come with the waste, since the Skull Valley reservation isn't likely to become the location for a lucrative gambling casino. And even if Gov. Mike Leavitt opposes waste storage in Utah, "the tribe has the sovereignty to make the decision," Fortier said.


E-mail: durbani@desnews.com

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.