Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks on justice and equity for Indigenous peoples at Alcatraz Island on Nov. 20, 2021, on the 52nd anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Saturday marked 52 years since Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island to bring attention to past and ongoing injustices against Native peoples — and it's a day that brought promises for more inclusion from the Biden administration.
Roughly 80 people came out to Alcatraz to honor the anniversary of that historic struggle, including a few Native Americans who were part of the original occupation, like Dr. LaNada War Jack.
"The intent was to turn the prison into a positive site where Native people could show the world how to live with natural laws, preserving our ecological balance, as our ancestors did for thousands of years," War Jack said in a speech.
"The occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indigenous people in 1969 was more than a call for action. It was a cry for a sense of community and the life ways that were stolen from us," she said. "We're in a new era, an era in which we can embrace our identities as Indigenous people and be proud of how much we have accomplished."
Haaland said a new era is unfolding, in which tribal leaders gather to craft new policies for the needs of tribes, and have a "seat at the table before decisions are made that impact their communities." She said this new era is also a promise.
"It's that commitment that drives the work we do at the Department of the Interior, whether it's restoring tribal homelands and empowering tribes to make decisions for their communities, or putting the power of the federal government behind the work to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis, and the intensive process we are undertaking to heal from the terrible impacts that Indian boarding schools have had on our communities," she said. "We are centering Indigenous voices in all of our work because we are still here."
On November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans landed on Alcatraz Island, launching an occupation that lasted for a year and a half. The action was based on an established legal principle of reclaiming abandoned federal lands for Native use. The group's claim came after years of watching the U.S. government terminate the status of over 100 tribes and remove approximately 2,500,000 acres of trust land from protected status.
“It would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation,” one of the young occupation leaders, Richard Oakes, told news cameras that day. “This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.”
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Oakes's son, Richard Oakes Jr., echoed the words of his late father: "Alcatraz is not an island. It’s an idea, right? The idea that the conditions of the island are the same or similar to reservations throughout the world."
Activists are still calling for the original demands made 52 years ago. War Jack told the crowd on Saturday that the effort to recognize Native Americans on Alcatraz Island with a cultural center is again moving forward.
"I need to announce that we had previously met with the Secretary of Interior who has been here to share this occasion with us. We were very honored to have her here and it says a lot for the changes in the new public policies that we’re going through right now," she said. "I’m really grateful that we have been acknowledged and that we may have a chance to go forward in the future with our museum and cultural center that we proposed 52 years ago."
The Department of the Interior, which Haaland oversees, itself oversees the National Park Service, which runs Alcatraz.
The cultural center is still not a done deal, however, War Jack said. "We’re still pushing on and we’re still struggling and fighting to preserve our momentum of continuing to fight for social justice and political sovereignty."
Haaland is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico. Her Alcatraz speech was the latest from the Biden administration to address Native American communities. Just Friday, Haaland formally declared "squaw" to be a derogatory term and ordered a task force to find replacement names for valleys, lakes, creeks and other sites on federal lands that use the word.
The order, which takes effect immediately, stands to affect more than 650 place names that use the term, according to figures from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
"Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. Our nation's lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression," Haaland said in a news release about the change.
"The term has historically been used as an offensive ethnic, racial, and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women," the statement from the Interior Department said.
The new federal action is one of the largest steps yet in the push to strip hurtful words from place names. In recent decades, several states from Maine to Oregon have dropped the term "squaw" from place names. And earlier this year, a famous Lake Tahoe ski resort dropped its long-running name, saying it was racist and sexist.
Despite the gains made for Native Americans since Haaland was confirmed to the Department of the Interior in March, there are still issues Native communities are pursuing that she's yet to publicly support.
At Alcatraz Saturday, when reporters asked Haaland if she'd travel to sites where Indigenous people are protesting pipelines, copper mines, lithium mines and more, she declined to answer directly.
"I appreciate the question. I want you to know I have a portfolio. We are in charge of all public lands, national parks and so forth in the country to that extent. That is my focus," Haaland said, adding, "one of the things we're really focusing on is moving a transition to clean energy forward."
KQED's Charlotte Buchen Khadra contributed to this report, as did NPR's Bill Chappell.