SAN FRANCISCO — For decades, visitors to Alcatraz Island had trouble deciphering the faded red graffiti on the old prison’s rusted water tower.
Then last month, the National Park Service unveiled a rebuilt water tower with bold red letters reading, “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land." The freshly painted inscription is an exact replica of graffiti left during the 19 months when Native American activists commandeered the wind-scoured island four decades ago and claimed it as their own.
“Normally, the federal government is not in the business of preserving graffiti," said Alexandra Picavet, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, who said that to her knowledge this was the only example of restored, modern-day graffiti. “The water tower was the occupation’s most outwardly focused message to the world, and it is an important part of the island’s history."
In the early morning of Nov. 20, 1969, some 80 Native Americans sailed to Alcatraz and set up camp. They would stay on the craggy outcropping until federal marshals removed them June 11, 1971. The group’s demands included establishing a Native American university and cultural center.
“We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for 24 dollars in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago," read their proclamation.
That other island was, of course, Manhattan, bought from Native Americans by the Dutch in 1626.
Soon after their arrival, the group found buckets of terra-cotta-colored paint, believed to be left over from the nearby Golden Gate Bridge. Some took to spelling out declarations of native sovereignty and painting raised red fists on the island’s dilapidated prison buildings, including the water tower.
The park service spent most of a year and $1.5 million restoring the 250,000-gallon tank and 103-foot steel tower. The task included carefully matching the graffiti’s paint and inviting Native Americans to participate in tracing over the final block letters. Park Service employees say that in the month since the project’s completion, they have noticed a significant rise in the number of tourists who see the graffiti and ask questions about it.
Still, most of the 1.4 million visitors who come to the island each year come for the intrigue of the federal prison years. From 1934 to 1963, the prison held some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, including mob boss James (Whitey) Bulger, George (Machine Gun) Kelly, and the “Birdman of Alcatraz," Robert Stroud.
“Most people don’t know anything about our history here," said Eloy Martinez, 72, a member of the Southern Ute tribe. “They just come over here to get their pictures taken next to Al Capone’s cell."
For more than a year, Martinez, his wife Lesee, an Apache, and his 4-year-old son lived in a cell overlooking the island’s dock. Now retired and living in Oakland, Martinez regularly boards a boat to Alcatraz to wander the grounds, point out the graffiti and answer tourists’ questions.
For its part, the National Park Service, which took over stewardship of the island in 1972, has made considerable efforts to preserve evidence of the Native American takeover. Last year, the park installed a permanent multimedia exhibition of photographs and videos from the occupation.
“The occupation of Alcatraz launched an unparalleled wave of modern day American Indian activism," said Troy Johnson, professor of American Indian studies at California State University, Long Beach, and author of several books about those 19 months on Alcatraz.
In the decade after the takeover, Native American activists occupied more than 70 other locations, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington.
“The occupiers awoke the government and the American people to native issues in this country," Johnson said.
The takeover also served to connect young Native American activists from dozens of tribes.
“I’m an urban Indian, not a reservation Indian," said Sacheen Littlefeather, 66, who spent time on Alcatraz during the spring of 1971. “I learned so much about cultural traditions being on that island with Indian people from all over the country."
Littlefeather joined a group of Native American college students who, on weekends, would haul in fresh water and food on a resupply boat called the Clearwater, purchased with money donated by the rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Every year, Native Americans from across the country — including many of the original occupiers — still gather on Alcatraz for sunrise ceremonies on Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.
But Martinez likes to be on the island on ordinary days, too, when thousands of tourists disembark with iPhones aloft and cameras slung across their chests.
Mostly, he talks about history.
But sometimes, he cannot help but tell passers-by that many Native Americans still face crippling poverty, high unemployment and a lack of resources and opportunities, just as they did in 1969.
“Truthfully," said Martinez, “I thought more would have changed by now."