Indigenous Rising: From Alcatraz to Standing Rock
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. From the historic Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 to the fossil fuel fights throughout Canada and the U.S. today, Indigenous resistance illuminates an activism founded in a spiritual connection with the web of life and the human community – with Julian NoiseCat, Dr. LaNada War Jack and Clayton Thomas-Müller.
- Julian Brave NoiseCat is a polymath whose work spans journalism, public policy, research, art, activism and advocacy. He serves as Director of Green Strategy at Data for Progress, as well as “Narrative Change Director” for the Natural History Museum artist and activist collective.
- Dr. LaNada War Jack is an enrolled member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho.
- Clayton Thomas-Müller is a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, also known as Pukatawagan, in Northern Manitoba. He serves as the “Stop it at the Source” campaigner with 350.org.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
- Production Assistance: Monica Lopez
- Special thanks to Cara Romero and Alexis Bunten, co-producers of the Bioneers Indigeneity Forum.
Faulty Infrastructure and the Impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline | 2022 NDN Collective Climate Justice Report
From Alcatraz to Standing Rock and Beyond: On the Past 50 and Next 50 Years of Indigenous Activism | 2019 Bioneers Indigenous Forum
Julian Brave NoiseCat – Apocalypse Then & Now | 2021 Bioneers Keynote Address
Bioneers Indigeneity Curriculum | Free resources for educators covering Alcatraz, Standing Rock, and more
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.
This program features music by Justin Delorme, Chippewa Travelers and Mimi O’Bonsawin from Nagamo Publishing at Nagamo.ca.
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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: In this program, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. From the historic Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 to the fossil fuel fights throughout Canada and the U.S. today, Indigenous resistance illuminates an activism founded in a spiritual connection with the web of life and the human community.
I’m Neil Harvey. This is “Indigenous Rising: From Alcatraz to Standing Rock,” with Native leaders Julian Brave NoiseCat, Dr. LaNada War Jack and Clayton Thomas-Müller.
JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: [In Secwepemctsin] I chose to begin my keynote in my language tonight because I wanted to show you that in our words, and in our very being, Indigenous Peoples are refusing to be annihilated.
HOST: Julian Brave Noisecat is a polymath whose work spans journalism, public policy, research, art, activism and advocacy. He serves as Director of Green Strategy at the think tank Data for Progress, as well as “Narrative Change Director” for the Natural History Museum artist and activist collective.
In 2021, he was named in TIME Magazine’s 100 Next list of emerging leaders. A member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen in British Columbia, he grew up in Oakland, California.
Julian Brave NoiseCat spoke at a virtual Bioneers conference.
JBN: In Secwepemctsin, I said who I am in relation to my kin, to my community, and to the places I come from because those things matter, not just to Indians, but to all people. At this dire juncture, with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbing to levels not seen in 3.6 million years, we all need to remember who we are, how we are related, where we come from, and how the other-than-human world, to which we are also related, gives us life.
The next thing I did when I introduced myself in my language was I put myself in relation to my family and my people. I think it’s important to remember that we are not alone, that we have relatives, that we are, in fact, all related, and not just us humans. The other-than-human world shares some of our DNA too. If we remember that, maybe we will recognize that our fates are also interrelated.
Over the last five years, my father and I have participated in the tribal canoe journey. It’s an annual indigenous gathering on the West Coast, where tribal people organized into what are called “canoe families”, get into their ocean-going vessels, and paddle for days and even weeks across the seas. At the end of those voyages, we converge on a single community for a week-long celebration of food, gifts, speeches, dances, and songs.
My father wasn’t around for most of my childhood. He was struggling with alcoholism and the demons inherited from St. Joseph’s Mission and the cycles of poverty, dysfunction and abuse it unleashed on Canim Lake. But the canoe journeys have brought us back together, and they helped us recognize the importance of family. You see, the beautiful thing about the canoe is that it quickly teaches you that if you want to go anywhere, you need other people, you need a family, you need to go together.
And in 2019, we were inspired to bring the canoe journey to Alcatraz Island. That year marked the 50th anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation, a 19-month protest for indigenous self-determination, sovereignty, and treaty rights.
I need you to understand how important the Alcatraz occupation was to Indigenous Peoples. It’s like our version of the Montgomery bus boycott. It launched a social movement that changed the hearts and minds of Native and non-Native people across the country and around the world. Alcatraz made Indians proud to be Indian again, and it transformed federal policy.
During the occupation, President Nixon, the frickin’ Watergate guy, shifted the federal government’s policy from an officially stated goal of termination to one of self-determination.
Working with our own canoe family, which we called the Occupied Canoe Family, my mother, father, and group of friends that included a youth worker and an Alcatraz occupation veteran, organized a paddle around Alcatraz Island on Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019. Eighteen canoes, including some from as far north as Canada, participated. Dozens of media outlets covered the story. A local TV station broadcast the canoes, circumnavigating the island from its traffic helicopter. Our little all-volunteer effort even made it into The New York Times. And for a day, Alcatraz was not seen as the former federal prison, but instead as a symbol of indigenous freedom, the way Native Peoples see it.
We can do a lot together when we recognize the fact that we need relatives, that we need family. Every time my father and I got out into the water, we rekindled and deepened our connection to the seas and places that gave us our Salish culture. If we don’t stop to remember and honor the places we come from, how can we possibly defend them?
RICHARD OAKES: We, the Native Americans, reclaim this land known as Alcatraz Island, in the name of all Native Americans by right of discovery. We wish to be fair and honorable with the caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty. We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island, about 300 years ago…”
HOST: That’s the voice of the late Richard Oakes, Mohawk Native American activist and one of the leaders of the Alcatraz occupation. He famously proclaimed that, “Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea”.
The idea was that when you came into New York harbor, you’d be greeted by the Statue of Liberty. But when you came through the Golden Gate, you’d encounter Alcatraz, a former federal prison reclaimed by Indians of all tribes as a symbol of their rights, their pride, and their freedom.
It’s possible, says Julian NoiseCat, to draw a direct line from Alcatraz to Standing Rock and countless other subsequent acts of Indigenous resistance. That seminal moment of organized action by Indigenous elders changed history.
One of those elders is Dr. LaNada War Jack. She is an enrolled member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho. She participated in the occupation, and spoke about it at a Bioneers Indigeneity Forum.
LANADA WAR JACK: We didn’t have any cell phones in those days. I don’t know how we did anything but—[LAUGHTER]. But we got on the phone and called all of our departments throughout the state of California and all the Native American students came. So we had our—kind of like an instant organization to take over Alcatraz, which we did, and it became a 19-month occupation. And I keep track of how many months it was because there were 19 Hopis that were imprisoned on Alcatraz during the late 1800s, and that’s where they kept all the war leaders from the last Indian Wars in the West. The Apache, the Shoshone Nation were having all their wars, the Paiutes, the Bannocks. And the last Indian War in the Northwest was the Bannock Indian War in 1880, so all of our leaders were taken to Alcatraz as well. So we have a little bit of history from our ancestors there as well. A lot of prayers have been spoken out there, because the 19 Hopi leaders were religious leaders, very powerful medicine people that were out there for that time, and they must’ve really put together a lot of prayers.
Unfortunately, the leader we picked, Richard Oakes, his daughter got into an accident and she was killed, so he and his family left the island. They were there for about six weeks. So we were left with the rest of the occupation. We organized the Bay Area Native American Council, which were all the native organizations across the Bay, and they came and supported us and met with us every time we negotiated with the federal government. Because they said we’re young and militant, and we didn’t have the support of the older, adult community, and we showed them that we did have that support, and told them we’re not militant, we’re non-violent, but we are young. That was our only sin at the time. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, we negotiated with the government throughout that time.
HOST: For LaNada War Jack, as for so many other Indigenous leaders, the Alcatraz Occupation marked the beginning of a new beginning for First Nations in the U.S. The ferment of the 1960s brewed up an Indigenous rights movement and cultural revolution that would wash over countless arenas of society.
LWJ: I was sent to San Francisco on the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program when I was 18, and then I got involved in community development in the Mission District where a lot of us lived, and the blacks had a program where they were sending their youth to UC Berkeley, so I asked them if they could send me too, and they did. So, I was the first Native American student at UC Berkeley. [APPLAUSE] And then I recruited, they helped me recruit. From there we joined the Third World Strike for Native American studies, Chicano studies, Asian studies, and Afro-American studies.
So it was pretty turbulent during those days, and San Francisco State had the same thing going on. I was the leader of the Native American Student Group from Berkeley, and they arrested all of the leadership. But I was able to work on curriculum development with Dr. Forbes at Far West Research Laboratories in Berkeley. We got our curriculum implemented, and when that happens at Berkeley, it goes statewide to all the UC campuses. And we had an instant Native American studies organization throughout California. And we [APPLAUSE] conferenced, and pow-wowed, and we all knew each other.
HOST: The history of broken treaties between the US government and First Nations is long and egregious. LaNada War Jack went on to pursue the enforcement of treaty obligations and Indian Rights as a founding board member of the Native American Rights Fund. She has served as an elected councilwoman for her tribes and on many other boards locally and nationally. She is currently President of the Indigenous Visions Network.
But broken treaties were only one crime in a blood-stained 500-year campaign of genocide and cultural erasure. Despite impossible odds, First Peoples have endured and kept the faith.
LWJ: During the time that the laws were preventing us from practicing our ceremonies in the open, or speaking our languages, because that was all illegal, the government passed legislation to make that illegal. But we still maintained our ceremonies and tried to keep our languages, and still follow our natural ways.
That’s why it’s all our responsibility to maintain those prayers, and those songs, and those ceremonies because it helps balance all land and life, and without that, we don’t have anything. Then we experience all these problems like we’re going through now. And that’s why I really like to go out to Alcatraz for Sunrise Ceremony because what you’re doing there is you’re impacting the world when you go to the sunrise because on those first rays of light that come through and you’re saying your prayers, or you’re singing your songs, and it’s coming out as sound, and it travels on those light rays all the way back to the sun, and then it comes back again, and as the Earth turns, all those positive blessings come back and fall on the Earth.
HOST: LaNada War Jack illuminates a deeper Indigenous cosmology grounded in an Earth-honoring spirituality. That spiritual foundation has continued to hold the center of contemporary Indigenous rights and resistance movements. At the same time, Indigenous leadership has increasingly held the center in the global multicultural social movements to sustain the web of life and bring equity into a broken world.
When we return, Canadian Indigenous rights and climate action leader Clayton Thomas-Müller takes the long view of intergenerational leadership and the restoration of the sacred.
I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers. This is “Indigenous Rising: From Alcatraz to Standing Rock”.
HOST: “Worldviews create worlds,” says cultural historian Richard Tarnas. Today, what’s old is new again: An Indigenous worldview of interconnection and the sacred.
Clayton Thomas-Müller spoke at a Bioneers conference…
CLAYTON THOMAS-MÜLLER: You know, in our Indian way, we have this way of seeing the world—In Cree way, when we talk about thinking in terms of seven generations, we’re thinking about the past three generations, okay, and the lessons that they’ve taught us, the sacrifice they made so that we could be here; the generation that we’re in right now, the here; and three generations ahead, and that’s how we make the decision, and it’s a different way of worldview, of seeing, of thinking about the consequences of the actions that you take in the now.
HOST: Clayton Thomas-Müller is a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, also known as Pukatawagan, in Northern Manitoba in Canada. He serves as the “Stop it at the Source” campaigner with 350.org, a leading global climate action nonprofit.
He’s an award-winning Indigenous Rights and Climate Justice activist, media producer and author.
He has led delegations to major UN and other international conclaves. His award-winning book and film are “In the City of Dirty Water.”
But for Clayton Thomas-Müller, his personal journey began very differently.
CTM: I started off my career as an organizer in my home city in Winnipeg in Canada. It’s about six hours north of Standing Rock just across the US/Canada medicine line. You know, my older brothers, they started the largest native gang in the country, the Manitoba Warriors, and so I grew up in that inner city gang culture that so many of our young brown and black youth grow up in who have become urbanized. Luckily, I was able to be introduced back to our culture, and for us back home, that’s Sundance. I was taken to my first Sundance when I was 18-years old, and it really cracked my heart and my head wide open to a vision of what could be possible, something I could’ve never imagined in the time I’d spent on the Earth up to that point. And I started to engage other young people to try and share this beauty that I had discovered in our people’s connection to the sacredness of our land.
And so at that time in the ‘90s, a bunch of us young natives, we got together and we started the Native Youth Movement, and we began to do work across the country, decolonization work, work aimed at helping our young people decolonize their minds to bring them back, to establish that connection to the sacredness of Mother Earth.
Today, I see young people have stepped up, and they’re leading the global climate movement now. Yes, there’s this phenomenal inspiring young woman from Sweden, Greta, but there are hundreds of brown and black young women all across the planet [APPLAUSE] that have been leading. And I think what is inspiring about this moment right now on a global scale is that when you look back at social movement history here in the United States, what they call the U.S.A., the Civil Rights movement, the movement to end racial segregation, racial apartheid in this country, it wasn’t until they brought the children out to the frontline that those racist police stopped busting heads, because even the most conservative of conservative here in the U.S.A. knew that you couldn’t bust kids’ heads open on camera. [LAUGHTER] I’m serious. And they shifted the Overton window in that moment of what could be possible.
HOST: In late September 2019, the largest climate strikes in history rocked the world with 150 countries taking part in 4,500 locations. 350.org reported that over 7 and a half million people participated in what was known as Global Week for Future. Canada had some of the highest numbers. For Clayton Thomas-Müller, it got very personal.
CTM: We put 900,000 people on the streets, [APPLAUSE] 500,000 alone in the city of Montreal; 12,000 people marched in my city in Winnipeg in Treaty 1 Territory. I went and marched that day with my sons, Felix and Jack. Felix is 13. Jack just turned 11. You know, this moment in time right now has given me an opportunity to share what I’m very passionate about with my sons. When we go protest, they climate strike, every Friday, we go to the legislature in Winnipeg and we protest. And it’s cool because, you know, I’m very cautious, not just politically, but also spiritually to never impose what I believe too heavily on my sons. I want them to choose and they’re like right in it. They’re like let’s do this shit, Dad. You know, [LAUGHTER] Screw big oil. Keep it in the ground. [LAUGHTER] Climate justice now!
And I seen these children, streaming out of school buses, little kids carrying the signs that they had made, and it snapped something in my heart, and I just knew this shit is done. Big oil is done. Like these kids are going to—like that power, that life, that force of life, and the positivity is just something to behold. And so there’s something to be said about intergenerational strategies.
And what I remember from when I was a young person is that people told us we were crazy when we started the Native Youth Movement, that we couldn’t do something about the gangs in the inner city. When we started the Tar Sands Campaign and took on every frickin’ oil company operating in the Canadian Tar Sands, they told us we were crazy, and that would never be able to keep the Tar Sands land-locked, that they were going to build all the pipelines they wanted to build, and you know what? We’ve been knocking those pipelines down one after the other. [APPLAUSE]
HOST: Just three years earlier in 2016, history had rhymed yet again with a surge of Indigenous resistance in an obscure Indigenous community in North Dakota called Standing Rock. What began as a grassroots protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline became an iconic marker in the struggle for Indigenous rights and social and environmental justice. The pipeline endangered the safety not only of the community’s water, but of the region’s 17 million people. It further threatened the community’s ancient burial grounds and precious cultural sites.
The campaign was initially catalyzed by Native youth from Standing Rock and surrounding Native communities. It soon spread to adults who organized a “water protectors” camp as a locus of direct action. The #NoDAPL hashtag blew up on social media and the camps were soon teeming with Native and non-Native water protectors from around the nation and the world.
Like Alcatraz, Standing Rock became an idea. Again, it changed history.
CTM: Standing Rock was the largest gathering of indigenous people since pre-colonialism. It became literally the fifth biggest city in the state of North Dakota, was the Standing Rock occupation. It was interesting watching it happen and watching the stories coming out of there. And I think the biggest, most powerful and profound story was very simple. It was a simple native teaching with huge implications, and that teaching was mni wiconi, water is life. Regardless of your gender, or race, or what you believe in, as members of the five-fingered nation, we all start our existence here on Mother Earth as mortal existence, suspended in amniotic fluid inside our mother’s womb, and the sound we hear for nine months, other than the muffled voice of our mother and the people she’s talking to, is her heartbeat [TAPPING ON MIC TO MIMIC HEARTBEAT].
And that’s very sacred, that’s your shared experience. And what Standing Rock, and the people of Standing Rock, and all their supporters who came there to stop that DAPL pipeline from threatening their water source, the Missouri River, they gave the world a teaching about our way of seeing the world, and that teaching was mni wiconi. And so there’s a spiritual dimension that comes with native activism that I think humanity needs if we’re going to solve the global climate crisis. [APPLAUSE] And that is fundamentally a connection to the sacredness to the place where you live. If you are connected to the sacredness of the place that you call home, then you’ll give a shit enough about it to go out there and fight the evildoers that would destroy your home for profit.
HOST: Clayton Thomas-Müller, LaNada War Jack and Julian Brave NoiseCat. “Indigenous Rising: From Alcatraz to Standing Rock”