You Were on Indian Land: Alcatraz Island as Recalcitrant Memory Space

You Were on Indian Land: Alcatraz Island as Recalcitrant Memory Space


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Contribution to Book



Book Title

Places of Public Memory: Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials


Greg Dickinson, Brian Ott, & Carole Blair


Why do some memories "stick" with us, while others are more ephemeral or utterly lost? This chapter explores the complicated relationships between place, memory, and forgetting at one of the most striking tourist destinations in the United States, Alcatraz Island. We offer this research as a case study through which we can think about the staying power of memories and examine how memories can be made more engaging and enduring. We also delineate the consequences for collective memory when significant events fall short of affixing themselves. Alcatraz Island, located in the San Francisco Bay, is "one of San Francisco's must-see attractions, "1 primarily because of its colorful history as a federal penitentiary. But there is much more to Alcatraz than Al Capone and the Birdman, and much that makes it an ideal site for contemplating how memory works at locations with multiple noteworthy historical events. On Alcatraz Island, Native Americans staged one of the most important civil disobedience events in their contentious history with the U.S. government. The nineteen-month occupation of the island by the Indians of All Tribes remains unmatched in terms of improving U.S. government policies toward Native Americans. Yet, the fact that Alcatraz is hardly remembered for this momentous event is stunning. Approximately 1.3 million tourists visit the island annually, anticipating a tour through the bleak and cavernous once-notorious prison. They bring little, if any, understanding of the importance of this site in Native American history. Once visitors begin their boat ride to and tour of Alcatraz Island, they encounter multiple rhetorical elements and explore prison spaces that produce a compelling official memory of Alcatraz Island. Through a variety of mediated and direct experiences, visitors encounter historically accurate and politically sensitive interpretations of the island's many previous uses before it became a national park in 1973. Even though Alcatraz's varied historical past is well represented in banners, exhibits, and film, there are several powerful physical elements that work to diminish any memory of the site's history as other than a federal penitentiary. This is particularly alarming because Alcatraz Island is one of few nationally preserved locations where one historical event ran counter to a U.S. historical narrative of "progress" or "triumphalism." Many Native American scholars and activists credit the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz Island that took place on November 20, 1969, through June 11, 1971, as being decisive in changing and improving U.S. governmental relations with Native Americans. For instance, Troy Johnson, professor of history and American Indian studies, describes the Occupation as "the most symbolic, the most significant, and the most successful Indian protest in the modern era . . . and [it] remains one of the most noteworthy expressions of patriotism and self-determination by Indian people of this century."2 Why, then, does the experience of Alcatraz fail to make this memory, and its significance, linger? I n this chapter, we investigate the memory and meaningfulness of this particular symbolic protest and what we believe is its troubled relationship to the present-day tourist experience on Alcatraz. Throughout the chapter we call attention to the importance of the visitors' sensory, embodied experience of the island and its spaces. Ultimately, we argue that the visitors' lack of any physical access to the island spaces inhabited during the Occupation seriously and negatively affects both attention to and the staying power of Occupation memories. While visitors can directly engage with the prison by moving through it, walking into cells, and even touching objects, there is no parallel experience of the Occupation available. Clearly the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz is a counternarrative that could offer contemporary audiences particularly affective and resonant messages of nonviolent collective civil disobedience and empowerment; however, we argue that despite the National Park Service's efforts at preservation and representation of the Occupation, this is not the message or memory that tourists take from their Alcatraz Island experience. In spite of the progressive possibilities afforded by Alcatraz's history, the tourist experience at Alcatraz Island-including the island's location, the exhibits, and the architecture-reinscribes respect for government's coercive authority. Alcatraz is an especially recalcitrant location for the inclusion of Occupation memories, even though those events took place on this very site.One of the challenges for historical representation on Alcatraz Island is that this location is now considered a "fun" family tourist destination. For those visiting San Francisco, not only is the Alcatraz Island tour a history lesson, but it also offers tourists a chance to get on a boat and journey into the scenic San Francisco Bay. On a clear day, the views of San Francisco, Marin County, the East Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge are breathtaking. Once on the water, tourists encounter seabirds, waves, and a bracing wind. The Alcatraz Island tour is part outdoor adventure and part history lesson, and it is this experiential combination that informs our research in analyzing not only what but also how tourists understand and remember this location's history.3 The materiality of an Alcatraz tour, characterized by the visitor's physical and sensory engagement with the island's spaces, overpowers attempts at remembering the counternarratives of resistance available on the island in its visual exhibits and orientation film. Without significant changes to the Native American Occupation representation on the island, Alcatraz as a memory site is a missed opportunity to encounter and retain messages of successful self-determination, empowerment, and civil disobedience. I n order to illustrate how the materiality of Alcatraz dominates its rhetorical messages, we first give a brief outline of the island's history. We then discuss how memory sites work symbolically and materially in the construction of a national identity. This is followed by an analysis of the Alcatraz Island tour, including the boat ride, the orientation film, the cellhouse architecture, and the audio tour, and how these elements affect the memory of the Native American Occupation and privilege the memory of the island's use as a federal penitentiary. We conclude with a discussion of the consequences of losing the memory of the Native American Occupation at Alcatraz Island, as well as the implications of perpetuating the understanding of Alcatraz Island as primarily a location of coercive incarceration. We finally reflect on the implications of the loss of this liberatory message and its effects in constructing a U.S. national identity.

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University of Alabama Press



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Communication | History | Social and Behavioral Sciences

You Were on Indian Land: Alcatraz Island as Recalcitrant Memory Space