Article by: Charlotte Hansen Terry
LaNada War Jack is a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes and a central figure in the twentieth- and twenty-first century Native American activist movements. Between 1969 and 1971, she helped to organize a nineteen-month Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. The occupation was a turning point that inspired legislation supporting Native American self-determination and led to further actions to reclaim land and argue for Indigenous sovereignty. War Jack characterizes the occupation as “a ‘rock’ that hit the water and sent out a thousand ripples: Nearly a thousand documented events resulted from the occupation of Alcatraz.”i While histories of the protest have often overlooked women’s involvement, one Alcatraz occupier characterized War Jack as the “real leader of the occupation.”ii
War Jack grew up on the Shoshone Bannock reservation in Blackfoot, Idaho. She experienced the hardships of reservation life created by U.S. government Indian policies. Her parents taught her the importance of resistance and introduced her to tribal politics.iii
War Jack initiated her activist career shortly after relocating to San Francisco in 1965 as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program. She rejected that program as a form of termination (the federal government’s series of laws and policies intended to assimilate Native Americans into the American mainstream). War Jack lived in the Mission District, which had the largest concentration of Native people in the city.iv She participated in the formation of the larger pan-Indian movement that flourished in such urban centers. With the support of Mission District organizations, she became the first Native American student to enter the University of California at Berkeley in 1968.v
It was at UC Berkeley that War Jack’s leadership deepened. She recruited other Native American students to attend. Together, they formed their own Native American student organization, which she chaired. She participated in the Third World Strikes at the campus in 1969, and she was part of the negotiation team that helped to create the Department of Ethnic Studies, which included a Native American Studies program.vi War Jack and other UC Berkeley students, together with Richard Oakes (co-coordinator of the takeover) and San Francisco State students, formed a Native American student alliance and planned the 1969 Alcatraz occupation, which claimed the island on behalf of Native people.vii
They began their occupation in November 1969 with students from various California colleges and universities arriving on the island with their families and proclaiming the occupation. War Jack’s son, Deynon Means, and her sister, Claudene Boyer, were with her. They demanded that the federal government honor treaties and called attention to dire conditions in Indian reservations and Native communities. War Jack continued her studies throughout the occupation and traveled nationally to rally support.viii She and other women leaders encountered sexism from some of their male colleagues. War Jack explained that patriarchy limited the possibilities of what they could accomplish with the occupation, a patriarchy that was the result of colonization.ix The occupation ended abruptly in 1971 with the arrival of armed federal agents.
In subsequent decades, War Jack continued to work for the enforcement of U.S. treaty obligations and the recognition of Indian rights. She was part of the Native American Rights Fund founding leadership, as well as the Executive Director for the Shoshone Bannock Tribes. She completed her PhD in political science at Idaho State University in 1999. She is currently a Distinguished Professor at Boise State University, teaching federal Indian Law and Tribal Government.x She emphasizes that the Alcatraz occupation was about far more than the island. In 1994, she explained that “We want the government to pass laws to respect our Mother Earth, with real enforcement to protect the land, the water, the environment, and the people. We want freedom of religion—the right to be human. We want our ancestors’ remains to be returned to our homelands. We want the federal government to stop contributing to the destruction around the world and to set a good example.”xi For War Jack, Native American self-determination and sovereignty is a roadmap for broad environmental and human rights.
i - LaNada Boyer, “Reflections of Alcatraz,” reprinted in Susan Lobo and Steve Talbot, editors, Native American Voices: A Reader, second edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001), 511.
ii - Dean Chavers, in “Voices from Alcatraz Island,” Indian Country Today, Sep 2, 2017, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/voices-from-alcatraz-island-rhwndtlnwES8WRChgoRsuw, accessed Aug. 7, 2020.
iii - Boyer, “Reflections of Alcatraz,” 507.
iv - Kent Blansett, A Journey to Freedom; Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement (Yale University Press, 2018), 85.
v - Boyer, “Reflections of Alcatraz,” 508.
vi - Blansett, A Journey to Freedom, 99–100; Boyer, “Reflections of Alcatraz,” 508.
vii - Boyer, “Reflections of Alcatraz,” 508–509.
viii - Boyer, “Reflections of Alcatraz,” 510–517.
ix - Delilah Friedler, “Activist LaNada War Jack of the Bannock Nation Details Her Time Occupying Alcatraz,” teenVogue, March 21, 2019, accessed Aug. 13, 2020, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/activist-lanada-war-jack-details-occupying-alcatraz.
x - “Biography,” https://drwarjack.com/biography, accessed August 7, 2020.
xi - Boyer, “Reflections of Alcatraz,” 517.
War Jack, LaNada. Native Resistance: An Intergenerational Fight for Survival and Life. Brookfield, MO: Donning Company Publishers, 2019.
Blansett, Kent. A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.
Boyer, LaNada. “Reflections of Alcatraz.” Reprinted in Susan Lobo et al, Native American Voices: A Reader, second edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001, 507–517.
This project was made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation.
This project was conducted in Partnership with the University of California Davis History Department through the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, CA# P20AC00946