Alcatraz is Not an Island- Reviewed by Diane Burns


"Alcatraz is Not an Island"

A one-hour public television documentary by Independent Television Service

Awarded the Best Documentary Feature at the American Indian Film Festival, 2001 Taos Talking Pictures Festival,

Official selection for the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.

Written by James M. Fortier, Jon Plutte and Mike Yearling,

with Dr. Troy Johnson & Millie Ketcheshawno

Director: James M. Fortier (Metis/Ojibway)

Producer: Jon Plutte

Executive Producer: Millie Ketcheshawno (Muskoke)

Associate Producer and Historical Consultant: Dr. Troy Johnson

Edited by Mike Yearling

Narrator: Benjamin Bratte, with additional vocal by Wayquay

Original Music: Jim Wilson (Choctaw), with additional soundtrack by: Quilt Man, Koljademo, Douglas Spotted Eagle, Keith Secola, Utali & Juno Award winner Jerry Alfred & the Medicine Beat Featuring: Peter Bowen, Dr. La Nada Boyer (Shoshone-Bannock), Edward Castillo (Cahuillo-Luiseno), Robert Free (Tewa), Leonard Garment, Shirley Guervara (Mono), Dr. Troy Johnson, Millie Ketcheshawno (Muskoke), Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee), Alan Miller (Seminole), Don Patterson (Tonkowa), Brad Patterson, Denise Quitiquit (Pomo), Grace Thorpe (Sac & Fox), Brookes Townes, John Trudell (Santee Sioux), Susan Tsosie (Yurok), Robert Warrior (Osage), and Ed Willie (Paiute-Pomo).

November 7, 2002 nationwide premier PBS at 10 PM as a co-presentation of ITVS & KQED Funding provided by California Council for the Humanities, Pechanga Band of Luise~no Mission Indians, and the Muscogee Creek Tribe of Oklahoma.

Review by Diane Burns

Sociologists tell us Native Americans laugh more when they are in a group than any other people in the world. What do people with the highest suicide rates, the most extreme levels of poverty and the highest infant mortality rates have to laugh about? I believe it is the ability to turn the tables that gives us our joie de vivre.

For instance, let's talk football. In the early days of the game, rule books had to be rewritten when a team of Native Americans took advantage of a loophole by appearing to play with every one of their players wearing what seemed to be a hunchback. The rule book did not specify that the game ball had to be inflated, and deflated balls hidden in a player's back were rushed invisibly to the goal.

That the United States has practiced genocide against the Native population is so evident it can hardly raise a blush on Uncle Sam's cheeks. One of the more insidious, invidious methods used in the 1950s and '60s was the Relocation Program. It was designed to destroy the tribes completely. Indian families were promised a free trip to the city, a place to live when they got there, jobs and vocational training, and better educational opportunities. In practice, it often meant a bus ticket to an alien metropolis with no follow-up and no way to return home.

As with the Indian Boarding Schools (where children as young as five were forcibly removed from their homes to far away schools where they were not allowed to speak their own languages or practice their religions), the Relocation Program backfired. Native nationals were forced to speak a common language (English) and were confronted with the same problems. Instead of assimilating and joining the mainstream, they grouped even more tightly and forged a new Pan-Indian consciousness. They transcended the old barriers to consolidation and cooperation such as different languages, religions and locales. Dine, Lakota, Papago and Cherokees found common ground in a common enemy.

I'm often asked if I prefer to be called Native American or American Indian. I am Anishinabe, a human being (all others, of course, being suspect), also known as Chippewa in the United States and Ojibway in Canada. We identify ourselves by our national identity not the appellation pasted on top of an entire hemisphere of people.

The takeover of Alcatraz Island (1969-1971) blended the desperate struggle for survival with the sly humor and inventiveness of the new consolidated Indian America. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with the Sioux Nation contains an agreement that abandoned federal property can be reclaimed by Indian people. Using this as a basis, Alcatraz was too powerful a symbol to ignore. Just beyond the Golden Gate to America, the former prison had uncomfortably many similarities to Indian reservations: no running water, too small a landbase to support its population, dangerous conditions (a ten-year old child was killed in a fall during the occupation), nearly universal unemployment, and so on.

The video was awarded the Best Documentary Feature at the American Indian Film Festival, 2001 Taos Talking Pictures Festival, and was an official selection for the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. The video succeeds admirably in presenting the complicated background of the takeover and the issues it confronted. With humor and passion the participants convey their reasons for the take-over. The video takes advantage of the spectacular San Francisco scenery, juxtaposing the bleak Rock in its magnificent natural setting. Using footage and stills from the time and interviews with contemporary Native speakers, the significance of the occupation becomes stunningly clear. Not just talking heads, these Indians of today provide an outsider with a feeling of inclusion while astonishing with the diversity of their occupations, their looks, and their ability to extrapolate current action from the symbolism Alcatraz provided.

The music provides a beginners' sampler to the diversity to be found in the neglected field of Native American music (although I wish they'd been able to squeeze in the Yuk-a-day Singers). Traditional drums blend seamlessly with contemporary sounds.

My great-uncle was a judge in Tribal Court. He often had to preside over cases of non-Indian poachers illegally shooting game out of season and on Indian lands. These hunters usually had a superior attitude, since, as my uncle explained to them, the judge had no power to detain or punish anyone who was not Indian. He would then go into tedious detail the paper trail he would have to follow to determine the hunter before him was actually not under the jurisdiction of the tribe. "You could be Indian and lying about it," he'd say. "We can hold you as long as we believe you might be Indian" -- then, my favorite part -- "or you could just pay the fine." He'd turn to his bailiff and say, "How long does it take to contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs and get a reply again?" He nearly always got the poachers to pay the fine.

The images of Native Americans in history present a dazzling collage -- from small pox-infected blankets to Ira Hayes lifting the American flag over Iwo Jima -- and Alcatraz will always stand as a symbol for American Indians of the consolidated power of hundreds of groups of human beings struggling to maintain their identities politically and culturally.


Alcatraz Is Not An Island will premier nationally November 7th on PBS stations at 10 PM EST.

Diane Burns (Chemehuevi/Anishinabequai)