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StoryCorps in Oklahoma: An Historic "Occupation" (Nov 18, 2011)

This week’s StoryCorps in Oklahoma features multimedia visual artist, poet, and actor, Richard Whitman. Whitman, a member of the Yuchi tribe of the Muscokee-Creek Nation, continues this month’s Native American Heritage series with a rather timely story pertaining to an “occupation” which began nearly 42 years ago, to the day on the island of Alcatraz.

Richard Whitman: It was the late 60’s… a time of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, counter-culture, music... It was a time of it’s own dynamics. Alcatraz was occupied by Native-American students up & down the coast. The San Francisco area had a large population of Native-Americans from everywhere.

Archived report excerpt: On the morning of November 20, 1969, seventy-nine Native-Americans sailed past an attempted Coast Guard blockade onto Alcatraz, a former federal prison. This was the third attempt by Indians to take over the island.

Indians of All Tribes (IAT) spokesman: This island here represents no-man’s land, and every-man’s land. It represents to the Indians a sounding board where they can get the attention of the public, press, and government officials.

RW: I was an art student in Santa Fe. It made news. I think the word was, “Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an ideal”. It was the first time we seen visibly, Native Americans that I could relate to… on the TV screen. They were not historical images or photographs, but everyday living Indians that I was used to seeing. So, we took a trip… I think it was during Thanksgiving or a school break for several days, and we drove out to the Bay area. Of course the ferry boats were under ‘guard’ or closed off, so we didn’t actually get to go to the island.

RW: It was the first time I met Wilma Mankiller, the late Wilma Mankiller. She was living in the Bay area before she returned to Oklahoma to become the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Anyways, we slept on her wooden floor with sleeping bags. She had a big pot of soup and coffee… you know, feeding the hungry souls that came through. Some people stayed. A lot of students returned to school and came back-and-forth during different breaks. I think it was 1969-70… and, later it evolved into the “Trail of Broken Treaties”, “The Wounded Knee Operation of ‘73”, the “American Indian Movement”… It was kind of an awakening for us to re-embrace our culture and who we were. And it took those political symbols for me to see that we were still these viable, or distinctive people.

Produced for KGOU by Jim Johnson, with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to recording and collecting stories of everyday people. The Senior Producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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