Erstwhile’s Alessandra Link caught up with Dr. Kent Blansett (Associate Professor of History, University of Nebraska-Omaha) to discuss his latest publication, A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement (Yale University Press, 2018). Dr. Blansett is also the Primary Investigator of the American Indian Digital History Project. An exhibit featuring items collected by Dr. Blansett, “Not Your Indians Anymore: Alcatraz and the Red Power Movement, 1969-71,” will be at Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center from October to January 2018. Blansett’s portrait of Red Power activist Richard Oakes (Mohawk) offers a fresh perspective on the Red Power Movement, the takeover of Alcatraz Island (of which Oakes was a major leader), and urban Indigenous history in the twentieth century. What follows are excepts from a lengthy phone interview with the author, edited for readability and clarity.
Erstwhile Blog: Could you explain the inspiration behind the book’s title, A Journey to Freedom?
Kent Blansett: I wanted to explore the rhetoric of the time period, rather than infusing a contemporary rhetoric upon a historical movement. A lot of the activists I interviewed told me that they asked the [National] Park Service to change their language regarding the “graffiti” located on structures throughout Alcatraz Island. The veteran activists instructed Park Service officials on Alcatraz to use the term “political statements,” because that is how they viewed these actions and messages. This is just a small example of how recalibrating our thinking and decolonizing our minds forces us to reexamine these statements and time periods. When we do this, we begin to see certain phrases appear more frequently. The one stand out term from all of these political statements is “freedom,” an obvious catchphrase from the sixties and seventies.
“Freedom” was the big idea that activists from the occupation of Alcatraz Island attached to liberating a former federal prison. They started asking themselves, “Did this term only apply to Euro Americans? “; “Why don’t we use this word ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ and ‘liberty’ in Indian Country?”; “Do these things not extend to us as Native peoples with a dual citizenship, and if so, what does ‘freedom’ actually mean for our political, economic, social, and cultural lifeways?”; and “What does complete Indigenous independence look like — is this what we want?”
What I see in Richard Oakes’s story is a larger message, a call to a lighthouse that cuts through the fog of media and exposes a dual sense of justice for Indians in America. Many popular Red Power statements like “Custer had it coming” or “Free” ask, “is decolonization just for Indians or is decolonization also adaptable or needed for a wider audience?” Red Power provided a very public stage for these types of important conversations. Red Power doesn’t end after the Trail of Broken Treaties [in 1972] or [the confrontation between American Indian Movement members, Oglala Lakota activists and U.S. law enforcement at] Wounded Knee [in 1973]. The ideas, the questions, continue to drive Indigenous activists and actions today.
EB: How would you define Red Power?
KB: What is Red Power? How do we define it? How does freedom enter into that equation? Activists and scholars alike from the Red Power period were not removed far enough from it to properly define it. What I began to do is say, well, there are different forms of Red Power activism that are occurring, because Red Power is a sophisticated movement with multiple forms and interpretations, but there’s a certain brand of activism that also predates Red Power, and that’s Native Nationalism. Native Nationalism is not something historians have talked enough about. It is a unique Indigenous movement, separate from ethno-nationalism. Native Nationalism is the quest for distinct Native Nations to preserve their sovereignty through political, cultural, economic, social, and legal means. It is activism tied to a single Tribe or Nation, such as Yankton’s fight to protect Pipestone or Nisqually’s right to harvest salmon.
But Red Power is also rooted in coalition politics and Intertribalism. Red Power, is born out of the urban Indian experience and for us it is a coalition politic, it’s not just an “Indian for Indian” kind of politic. As a movement it utilized multiple kinds of resources to fuel and promote Native Nationalist causes. But in the same breath, it is a challenge to nail down Red Power to one singular definition. We cannot limit Red Power to activism alone. Red Power looked differently in San Francisco than it did in Minneapolis or Seattle, it went beyond one solitary island and as a concept encapsulated many new and changing Indigenous ideologies and philosophies. That’s where Richard Oakes story becomes so emblematic of Red Power because as he stated, “Alcatraz is not an island. It is an idea.” Ideas are powerful, and they can travel across space and time.
EB: How do you grapple with other historians’ characterization of the occupation of Alcatraz as a “failure”?
KB: I was less than thrilled with trying to figure out what Red Power action came first, and instead asked the question: “how do we use this event to explore the larger issues of Native Nationalism and Red Power?” Most of the literature situates the Indians of All Tribes (IAT) takeover at Alcatraz and the confrontation at Wounded Knee as the bookends for the Red Power Movement. In these instances, Alcatraz is often isolated to the island itself, the takeover viewed as a spark plug for other forms of protest. Previous studies that examine Alcatraz often missed that the IAT expanded their activism far beyond the confines of the island. IAT also lent their support and talents to the takeover of Fort Lawton; Pour-ins at Pyramid Lake; Fish-ins at Frank’s Landing; BIA takeovers from Denver to Alameda; occupations of PG&E property by Pit River Nation; and even marches alongside Brown Berets in East LA’s moratorium march.
Several scholars have written about Alcatraz as a failure because the main demands of the IAT were not met: we didn’t get the island; there’s no tribal college. Despite these material requests, in my interpretation the occupation of Alcatraz Island was still a major success. Today something close to 10,000 people visit the island daily (roughly five million a year), and when they’re on the island they’re exposed to IAT’s political statements and messages. Visitors confront Red Power and get a crash course on Indigenous rights. Alcatraz Island is the second most populated urban park, just behind the Statue of Liberty. The symbol and idea of Alcatraz is far more valuable than if every material objective or demand of IAT was fulfilled in the occupation. Tell me what other landmark or place in this country does that for Indian Country?
Red Power Political Statement painted on side building next to the main docks for Alcatraz Island, 2011, Photo courtesy of Kent Blansett.
EB: Could you explain why you place A Journey to Freedom within urban Indian history?
KB: When I started this project, my research primarily focused on San Francisco. When Richard arrives in San Francisco, what is the city that he enters? Is he hanging out in Haight-Ashbury with beads and feathers and patchouli oil, listening to Janis Joplin at coffee bars? That has become the common stereotype or mythos of what was happening in San Francisco during the late 1960s. What I discovered was that there was an Indian City, a city within a city. A city that existed far beyond the privileged streets of Haight-Ashbury, a city that found its roots within the Mission District alongside Indigenous relations from South America and Central America.
You can’t talk about Alcatraz without talking about this Indian City. Alcatraz just didn’t pop into people’s minds in 1964 or 1969. These things didn’t just appear out of the Bay-Area fog. They were created and constructed over time and originated out of Indian Cities. Oakes’s life is the perfect example of this. He moves us away from a strict binary or dichotomy of rez (reservation) versus urban. He demonstrates this so clearly through the way that he lived and moved through the world. He grew up in both Brooklyn, New York, and Akwesasne (the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in northern New York). The urban Indian experience is not about victimization or that Indian ways are antithetical to urban life. Oakes lived experience demonstrates how Native peoples took power into their own hands to Indigenize urban spaces through the construction of institutions that serviced the needs of Native peoples.
A lot of urban Indian history is done on a case by case study. In the historiography you’ll have a book on L.A., you’ll have a book on Seattle, and you’ll have a book about Chicago. However, these wind up being very static views of the urban Indian experience, I really wanted to showcase a comparative urban history that highlighted the vast movement of Native peoples between cities. In the 1960s and 1970s Indigenous peoples are often moving between multiple cities, much like Richard’s own experience. Writing a biography of Richard provided me with the opportunity to do one of the first urban comparative histories in Indian Country, in which the reader can see concepts like Indian Cities, Red Power, and Intertribalism operating in multiple places, whether it be the Mohawk City in Brooklyn at its height in the 1940s and ‘50s, or San Francisco and Seattle in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Biography also allowed me to challenge the narrative of a relocation. Federal relocation has often been written from a singular view that the policy was an oppressive to Native Nations, families, and individuals. While this is part of the story, I also discovered that a lot of Native peoples were volunteering to relocate. This movement from rez to urban actually enhanced the lives of many Native peoples and, in turn, amplified what they were able to do for their communities and Tribes.
EB: What are some of the virtues, and challenges, of historical biography?
KB: Writing a biography is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because you’re responsible for telling someone else’s life as accurately as possible. As a Native scholar you have a responsibility to tell the story of the individual, family, activists, friends, community, places, and nation. In Richard’s case, many of his relatives and family are still with us, as are many of the Red Power veterans who marched alongside him. There’s a lot at risk. For those reasons, I think a lot of scholars shy away from writing biography. At times it is too intimate or full of emotion. Coming up in the field of Native history, I also noticed that a lot of Native scholars weren’t writing twentieth-century histories, and even fewer were willing to write Indigenous biographies. It’s a common method for any graduate student seeking a topic: figure out what historians are not doing and then do it—fill the void. My hope is that more scholars will begin to explore Indigenous biography—I know of several exciting new works in progress.
Finally, Richard lived his life in such a way that he became a perfect lens through which to view a myriad of sophisticated issues like Native Nationalism, Red Power, Intertribalism, and Indian Cities. Beyond the life story of Richard Oakes, is a wider exploration of the environments and communities that shaped his brand of politics and ultimately the larger Red Power Movement. By merging the power of place and biography, A Journey to Freedom evolved into what I term a community biography.
Eagle and “Free” shield carving located above the entrance to the Administration Building on Alcatraz Island, 2011, Photo courtesy of Kent Blansett.
EB: What advice could you give new Ph.D.s on turning their dissertation into a book?
KB: I know a lot of people who published right away hoping that a quick publication of their dissertation might make them more successful on the job market. While this is understandable, I truly think part of the attraction to new scholarship is the buildup or anticipation, and taking the time to experiment in the classroom, workshop, reflect, and revise. After all, there’s a reason why most tenure lines require around a five-, six- year span of time beyond the PhD—as a scholar your outlook, research, and writing will dramatically change in that time. Our profession is structured in such a way to encourage scholars to spend more time rethinking, restructuring, and reframing their first publication. Apply for fellowships that allow you time away from the classroom and the opportunity to collaborate as well as test new ideas. From dissertation to book, A Journey to Freedom went through multiple interpretations, and it has transformed my thinking about Indigenous biography and history.
My best advice is to appreciate that delay and embrace that time. Allow the anticipation and your audience to grow. Finally, consider your audience: is your scholarship meant for five academics or is it for the greater public—hopefully, it is a page-turning combination of both, but that is for you to ultimately decide.
Many thanks to our friends at Erstwhile for allowing us to cross-post this conversation between Alessandra Link and Kent Blansett. The original post is available here. Alessandra Link is currently a research fellow at the Clements Center at Southern Methodist University.