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Cal State San Marcos held a screening of the film “Alcatraz is Not an Island” on Nov. 13. The CSUSM American Indian Studies Department and the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center hosted the screening. File photo
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Documentary screening marks 50 years since Native American Alcatraz occupation

SAN MARCOS — A screening of the 2001 PBS film “Alcatraz is Not an Island” was held Nov. 13 at Cal State San Marcos to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the launch of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island.

The Cal State San Marcos American Indian Studies Department and the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center hosted the screening of the film. It was followed by a discussion moderated by Professor and Indian Studies Department Chair Joely Proudfit, who spoke to Dennis Turner, one the founding organizers of the occupation. He said it was the first time he had seen the film.

“Alcatraz is Not an Island” features archival footage about what led to the 19-months-long seizure of the island, the site of the famed shuttered federal prison. Native Americans pointed to the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 between the U.S. and the Lakota tribe, which stated that all retired federal land would go to the country’s first inhabitants, as the rationale for occupying the land.

“I would say I was there for the front-end,” Turner said of the occupation. “And then for about six months after that, taking a leave of absence from school.” He then returned for another three months during a summer break, there for a period of about half the entire scope of the occupation.

Turner, who now serves as the executive director of the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, added that what he remembers most prominently about Alcatraz was how cold it got.

The film points to federal government policy of termination of reservations, leading to many Native Americans moving into the country’s urban centers. Eventually, many attended major higher education institutions, such as University of California-Berkeley and San Francisco State University.

It is on these college campuses, the film posits, that the seeds of the idea behind the Alcatraz occupation were planted. The idea behind the occupation was fairly simple: turn it into an idyllic enclave for the nation’s first people and a self-sustaining society at that.

In actuality, due to a mix of internal group dynamics and also resistance from the federal government itself, the occupation eventually puttered off. But it also culminated in what are widely seen as major concessions signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Beyond legal measures, Nixon became the first post-World War II president to formally renounce the termination policy.

Proudfit said she sees the film’s title as importantly symbolic for understanding how this historical event fits into daily life for students — particularly those Native American descent — who attend CSUSM. She called the school the “heart of Indian Country with 18 tribes in the county alone.”

Proudfit also has a personal tie to the film as the head of the American Indian Studies Department.

“I owe my job to the students at Alcatraz,” said Proudfit, pointing out that another byproduct of the occupation was the creation of the first American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University 50 years ago. She became the second ever tenured faculty member at the university in that department before eventually coming to CSUSM.

Proudfit, who formerly served as an appointee of President Barack Obama on his National Advisory Council on Indian Education, also helped make the film itself.

“I worked with the film director James Fortier when I was a young professor in American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University,” she told The Coast News. “I helped him secure some of the funding he needed for his documentary and asked actor Benjamin Brett to narrate the film. He so generously agreed to do so.”

At the screening, Proudfit said a takeaway lesson is inherent in the film’s title. In other words, it symbolizes an ongoing struggle for the country’s indigenous people.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still really haven’t,” she said. “We’re still really fighting and struggling for those resources. There’s some really great things that have happened, but it’s still a fight, so it’s so important to remember the sovereignty agreements, to remember the culture.”

In the coming weeks Proudfit said she hopes to bring scholar and author LaNada WarJack to CSUSM in the near-future to discuss her new book “Native Resistance: An Intergenerational Fight for Survival and Life,” as well as her experiences spent at the Alcatraz occupation