Fifty years ago this November in San Francisco’s Bay, young Native activists took over Alcatraz Island in what became a 19-month landmark struggle that helped end the U.S. government’s “termination policy,” intended to wipe out tribal sovereignty, treaties and reservation lands.
The takeover of Alcatraz — and in Minnesota, the formation of the revolutionary American Indian Movement — helped spur a nationwide Native movement in a massive struggle against the brutal, racist genocide embedded in the U.S. system. That legacy was revived in the anti-Dakota Access Pipe Line fight.
In the Bay Area this week, there were multiple commemorations of the 50th anniversary, with the traditional Sunrise ceremony on the island drawing more than 5,000 people, on the day known as “Thanksgiving,” but also called the National Day of Mourning or “unthanksgiving.”
In San Francisco’s Mission district, American Indian Movement West director Tony Gonzales organized a two-day conference at the ANSWER office, Nov 25 and 26, as part of the anniversary celebration. More than 100 people from the Choctaw, Diné, Washoe, Lakota, Blackfoot, Ohlone, Shoshone, Oneida, Tohono O’Odham, Pima, Cherokee, Apache, Mohawk, Kupa, Hawai’i, Lenca from El Salvador and other nations attended, as well as Chicano/Mexica peoples. They all traveled long distances to take part in all the activities.
The program included Alcatraz veterans and AIM leaders Bill Means, Madonna Thunder Hawk, co-founder of Women of All Red Nations, Morning Star Gali, Len Foster, spiritual advisor for Leonard Peltier. Keynote speaker was Dr. LaNada War Jack, who together with legendary Richard Oakes, led the Alcatraz takeover. Dr. War Jack is author of a new book, Native Resistance: An Intergenerational Fight for Survival and Life. Oakes was murdered in 1972 by a white supremacist.
Speakers provided a rich narrative of the ongoing resistance to harmful U.S. government policies, for protection of the environment, and preserving culture and sovereignty. The first day started with the Mexica Teo-Kali traditional dancers, and a and blessing from Red Lightning Women Power Singers.
A special highlight was a message from Native political prisoner Leonard Peltier. He is still in prison after more than 43 years, persecuted by the U.S. government for a crime he didn’t commit. (Learn about his freedom struggle at www.WhoIsLeonardPeltier.info
Peltier thanked those present for their support and congratulated everyone for the 50th anniversary. Some participants were able to give him personal greetings, including Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, Palestinian activist and S.F.S.U. professor, who spoke of the close ties between Palestinians and Native people over land and sovereignty.
In a poignant moment, Leonard Peltier said, “I humbly ask for your support. I want to come home.”
Len Foster, Diné from Arizona, and Wounded Knee and Alcatraz veteran, has been Peltier’s spiritual advisor for more than 34 years, visiting him at each prison he was transferred to, including where he is currently held at Coleman in Florida. He told the audience that the warden at Coleman penitentiary recently called him to say he can no longer visit him.
Why can he not visit Leonard Peltier? Because, the warden said “you and Peltier are personal friends.” This outrage is a blatant denial of his religious ceremonial rights, which were hard fought for by Native traditionalists, and became inscribed into the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
Foster said, “He has been on lockdown for months. The guards confiscated his chanupa, his pipe, his eagle feather and his eagle bone whistle, which he used as part of his Sundance ceremony,” before he was in prison. “They broke it,” he said, characterizing the guards as “vicious and evil.”
Only 21 years old when he became part of the Alcatraz occupation 50 years ago, Foster said, “it is important that we continue the work we’re doing on behalf of Leonard to seek his release.”
George Galvis, youth activist, spoke on the Indigenous roots of restorative justice.
“The very first prisons in this country were the slave plantations and the reservation. We were relegated to what was considered the most worthless land. And if you stopped off the reservation, what happened? You were hunted, captured or killed. If you were an enslaved African, and you escaped from slavery, what happened? You were hunted, captured or killed. … How do you reform genocide? It’s the same thing with the cages today. We are unapologetic, we want to end incarceration!”
Gloria La Riva, 2020 presidential candidate, together with Leonard Peltier, her vice-presidential candidate, spoke about the electoral campaign and how it will be an important force to help elevate his freedom struggle, as well as popularize the struggle for socialism. They are vying for the Peace and Freedom Party nomination in California and for the Party for Socialism and Liberation across the U.S.
At the conference conclusion, three important resolutions were passed, including one demanding Peltier’s immediate freedom and restitution for the decades of his life lost to government persecution (see bottom of this article), a resolution in solidarity with the Indigenous resistance in Bolivia against the coup, and opposition to the U.S. blockades of Venezuela and Cuba.
On the same Unthanksgiving day, November 28, at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, the traditional commemoration was held on the 49th anniversary of the historic rejection of the pro-colonial U.S. narrative, when Native leader Frank Wamsutta James, began the National Day of Mourning in 1970.
AIM West Resolution for Leonard Peltier
We, the people assembled in the American Indian Movement West conference in San Francisco, November 25 and 26, declare:
Whereas Leonard Peltier is a Lakota Warrior, and has been unjustly imprisoned for 15,991 days, more than 43 years; and
Whereas Leonard Peltier is the victim of a vicious U.S. government and FBI political persecution; and
Whereas Leonard Peltier is innocent; and
Whereas Leonard Peltier has maintained a principled steadfastness for his people; and
Whereas the cruelty of prison officials and U.S. government have failed to break his spirit, despite the unimaginable cruelty and illegality of 43 years of prison; and
Whereas the prison officials are denying Leonard Peltier at Coleman I the right to celebrate his religion, in violation of federal law, damaging his religious items, and denying him the accompanimentof his spiritual advisor, Len Foster; and
Whereas a massive international movement of solidarity has arisen demanding his immediate freedom, including Nobel Laureates, Bishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela,
Whereas former U.S. attorney James H. Reynolds as called for Leonard Peltier’s release “in the best interest of justice”; and
Whereas former prosecutors have admitted egregious U.S. prosecutorial misconduct; and
Whereas from Day One after the rightful exoneration of his co-defendants Bob Robideau and Dino Butler by reason of self-defense, the FBI began a relentless and massive war against Leonard Peltier, falsifying evidence, extracting a false affidavit from Myrtle Poor Bear that caused his illegal extradition from Canada; and
Whereas Leonard Peltier’s sentence is the equivalent of 6 life sentences already served; and
Whereas he needs to come home and be embraced by his family, friends and community;
An immediate end to the punishment that the U.S. system has waged on Leonard Peltier;
The Immediate freedom of Leonard Peltier;
Complete restitution to Leonard Peltier for all the years he was denied freedom;
And we vow to engage in all means to free Leonard Peltier, legal, social, political, including fundraising for his legal defense, raising his freedom fight to all corners, and to support his campaign for U.S. Vice President in 2020.
Free Leonard Peltier!