(We revisit a piece written a few years back, reminded of it by a recent Facebook photo of accomplished folk singer Conrad Marzan who, together with his wife Pilar, offered me a visit to Alcatraz. – RD.)
AS WE passed the cells of the island penitentiary called Alcatraz, we were guided by radios attached to our ears telling us where to find the cells which confined by some of the famous former occupants of the island prison.
What I wanted to hear then but didn’t from the tape recording was about the 19 men of the Hopi Nation who were rounded up in November, 1894.
They, too, were imprisoned for almost a year at Alcatraz that is now one of San Francisco’s top tourism come-ons. I put off the radio, haunted by visions of the mass arrest and imprisonment, the image of which occupied my mind on the boat back to the mainland. The image haunts now and then, reason for this revisit of this piece written after that visit.
The Hopi men were described as “murderous-looking” and misidentified as Apaches in a story by the San Francisco Call. Their crime: resistance to cultural imposition, subjugation and domination. They had refused to send their children to boarding schools under a government program to “Americanize” them and, in the process, wipe out their own culture.
The 19 men were released in September, 1895, just before their womenfolk and children would have to spend another harsh and cold winter without their menfolk.
In 1995, historian Wendy Holiday of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office wrote a story on the Hopi prisoners. She asked readers who had stories about them to contact her and help document this event in Hopi history – from the American Indian perspective.
That indigenous view surfaced in autumn of 1969, six years after the penitentiary was closed. Thousands of Indians and non-Indians landed on Alcatraz to reclaim it as Indian land. They invoked "discovery," in the same token that European colonizers earlier invoked the self-serving principle of “terra nullius” in claiming Aboriginal and indigenous lands in Australia.
They occupied The Rock for almost a year and a half. The occupation proved a powerful rallying point to demand respect for indigenous peoples and their human rights. Ben Winton, writing for Native People’s Magazine in 1999, noted that “despite its chaos and factionalism, the event resulted in major benefits for American Indians.”
He quoted historian and law professor Vine Deloria Jr. of the University of Colorado:
“Alcatraz was a big enough symbol that for the first time this century Indians were taken seriously.” And John Trudell, a Santee Sioux: “Alcatraz put me back into my community and helped me remember who I am. It was a rekindling of the spirit. Alcatraz made it easier for us to remember who we are.”
Tourists now line up daily at San Francisco’s Pier 39 for the boat to take them to The Rock. They are issued audio gadgets that serve as their guide to the now empty, silent cells of the more famous, or infamous convicts who did time there – Al Capone, Robert Stroud (Birdman of Alcatraz), George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
I punched the audio guide on, but my mind was off the names it featured.
What struck my Igorot brain and eye were the sepia photos of the 19 Hopi prisoners. In deep autumn, they were taken away from their wives, children and families who had to survive the coming winter without them.
On the return boat back to the mainland, I struck some pesky flies from what appeared to be a swarm. Six that didn’t escape Alcatraz, I said to fellow passengers also trying to ward off those landing on their faces.
At Alcatraz, I searched for the names of the 19 Hopi men. I later found them in Holiday’s article posted on the Hopi website: Aqawsi, Heevi’yma, Kuywisa, Lomahongiwma, Lomayawma, Lomayestiwa, Masaatiwa, Nasingayniwa, Patupha, Piphongva, Polingyawma, Qosventiwa, Qotsyawma, Sikyaheptiwa, Talangayniwa, Talasyawma, Tawaletstiwa, Tuvehoyiwma, Yukiwma.
Months later, my mind turned to Australia’s Aborigines, about whom I learned from Bob Randall, Deborah Bird Rose and Rebecca Hossack, my teachers at Schumacher College in the Devon countryside of England.
Randall belonged to the “Lost Generations” of Aboriginal children who were taken away from their parents and brought to special schools to be educated in the ways of their European colonizers. Randall, a traditional co-owner of the giant Uluru Rock that is sacred to his people, never saw his mother again after he was plucked from her arms.
He spoke without bitterness - and with gentle, irrepressible humor. He called for a healing together. It’s the message of an award winning documentary film of which he is the narrator. Directed by Melanie Hogan, a white Australian, it’s entitled “Kanyini”, which means interconnectedness.
“The purpose of life is to be part of all that there is,” Bob said. “Our parents said we are connected to everything else, and the proof is being alive. You’re one with everything there is.”
Rose, a respected American-Australian anthropologist, noted how the European colonizers applied their self-serving concept of “terra nullius” in claiming lands Down Under. “The idea that the land was untransformed led directly to the idea that land was un-owned,” she noted. “Locke’s famous statement on property could have been written precisely to justify the dispossession of indigenous peoples in the European settlement of Australia.”
Contrary to the colonizers’ view that the Aborigines were simply hunter-gatherers or parasites who depended on food naturally produced by the land, Rose asserted they did have land management systems, using fire as a tool.
Hossack, an expert in Aboriginal art based in London, opened up on the problems of drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, gambling and feeling of aimlessness among Aborigines as a result of colonization that uprooted them from their cultural roots. She spoke of Albert Namatjira, perhaps the greatest and most famous Aboriginal painters. The quality of his art made him the first among his people to be granted Australian citizenship under the laws of the colonizer.
Citizenship meant the right to acquire land and property – and to buy goods, including alcohol. True to his tribal culture and upbringing, Namatjira shared what he had. In so doing, he was charged and found guilty of passing on alcohol to a fellow Aborigines who, according to the white man’s law, were prohibited from holding or drinking intoxicants.
He was sentenced to six years imprisonment, but was released after two months. Incarcerated for acting in accordance with the dictates of his culture by sharing what he had made him despondent, a broken man.
Namatjira’s fate brings one to that of Cayat. He was an Igorot (probably a Kalanguya,) during the American colonial period here. The Baguio court then convicted the guy for possession of a bottle of commercial gin labeled “A-1-1”.
I remember his young Igorot lawyer, the late Sinai Hamada who went up to the Supreme Court to contest the constitutionality of the law that banned Igorots from having in their possession or consuming intoxicants, except the “tapuy” they customarily produced. Two years after Cayat’s final conviction, the law, premised on the assumption that tribals couldn’t hold their drink, was rescinded.
The laws that governed the native American the American colonizers applied to the “non-Christian” tribal Filipinos such as the Igorots. To make up for the injustices, American laws eventually gave the Indians the right to open and operate casinos in their reservations.
Here, it’s the other way around. Some “kailians”, many of them Christianized pocket miners of Itogon and vegetable farmers of Buguias, now and then squander a small fortune in our state-run casinos in La Union and elsewhere.
This state of affairs sometimes tempts me to think it would be better for them to gamble and lose in a local casino, the earnings of which would go to local development projects instead of spurring up the economy of those down there in La Union, Angeles City and elsewhere.
(e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for comments.)