Manifest Destiny: An expression used by Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Government
to justify theft and genocide in order to obtain what was not theirs to begin with.
"If a man loses anything and goes
back and looks carefully for it, he will find it, and that is what
the Indians are doing now"
"Each person upon this earth had
ancestors who lived in close harmony with all of nature. For too
many, this basic tie between man, spirit and creation has been forgotton.
The spirit, the very blood cries out for us to re-examine ourselves
in relation to our environment and to one another.
I went for the first time as a photojournalist to document this event on Alcatraz. This was also the first time I realized that we all live on Indian land, and I was taken within the sacred hoop, what we call a circle. From this point, I followed the attempts by Indian people to show the reawakening of their pride, re-educating non-native Indians to these changes.
I went to Wounded Knee and to many historical events that became part of the circle. There are things happening in the present day which have a link to the past. Non-Indians would say it is only coincidence. Indian people say that is is the completion of a circle. This view of the sacred hoop makes history especially important to native people.
The history I am showing also centers around women. I learned that the First Woman is the most powerful among the spiritual figures, because she represents regeneration. The Earth is the mother, and the Moon is the grandmother. Through these images I chose to penetrate more deeply in daily life, both in reservations and in the city, showing the reality of native American life and its daily struggles, as well as their changing role in our society. I have attempted to stay away from the romantic version of Indian life that exists only in white society's imagination.
"Today we sing what we believe others
have believed and trust the past for the future. Our song of peace
and timeless myths may bring all men together with a good energy
to live. In the language of the Anishinabe the word 'wanaki' means
to leave somewhere in peace.Now
we sing 'wanaki'"
Alcatraz Island Native Occupation 1969-71
The beacon flashed incessantly. On. Off. On again. Like some
sort of traffic light gone crazy, it pierced the nighttime mist
over San Francisco Bay, sending a message from Ghirardelli Square
to Alcatraz Island five miles away. There, cheers erupted as the
light flashed the words, "Go Indians!"
LaNada Boyer inside one of the Alcatraz guard barracks where occupiers lived from 1969-71. Much of the graffiti from 30 years ago remains throughout the island today. Photo by Linda Sue Scott.
The occupiers held the island for nearly eighteen months, from Nov. 20, 1969, until June 11, 1971, reclaiming it as Indian land and demanding fairness and respect for Indian peoples. They were an unlikely mix of Indian college activists, families with children fresh off reservations and urban dwellers disenchanted with what they called the U.S. government's economic, social and political neglect. Since well before Modoc and Hopi leaders were held at Alcatraz in the late 1800s, U.S. policy toward Indians had worsened, despite repeated pleas from American Indian leaders to honor treaties and tribal sovereignty.
The occupation of Alcatraz was about human rights, the occupiers said. It was an effort to restore the dignity of the more than 554 American Indian nations in the United States. Historians and other experts say the occupation-though chaotic and laced with tragedy-improved conditions for the 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives alive today.
"Alcatraz was a big enough symbol that for the first time
this century Indians were taken seriously," says Vine Deloria
Jr., a University of Colorado-Boulder law professor, philosopher,
author and historian.
Occupiers wanted more than just Alcatraz; they wanted to reclaim lives. They made many demands. Among them was Boyer's $299,424 grant proposal to turn Alcatraz into a cultural park and Indian social and education center. The federal government turned it down as too unrealistic. So the occupation continued.
More than 5,600 American Indians joined the occupation-some for all eighteen months and some for just part of a day. American Indians, like many people of color in that era, were fed up with the status quo. The annual household income of an American Indian family was $1,500-one-fourth the national average. Their life expectancy was 44 when other Americans could expect to reach 65.
It was the '60s: Cesar Chavez ignited Chicano farmworkers, sparking a Hispanic civil rights movement that led to better wages and an end to stereotypes. Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, the Black Panthers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights movements among Blacks. Asian Americans in San Francisco also took to the streets, protesting discrimination in schools. Young White America protested the war in Vietnam and promoted a new culture of free-wheeling love and peaceful dissent.
Many American Indians also felt the time was ripe to speak out once again, for the first time in a century. Not since Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Seath'tl and Manuelito had American Indians so thoroughly gotten Washington's ear. They did so without violence. "We were going to be a positive example for Indian people and show a positive face to the world," Fortunate Eagle said. Representing dozens of Indian nations around North America, the occupiers called themselves Indians of All Tribes.
Siege at Wounded Knee-1968
In the summer of 1968, two hundred members of the American Indian community came together for a meeting to discuss various issues that Indian people of the time were dealing with on an everyday basis. Among these issues were, police brutality, high unemployment rates, and the Federal Government's policies concerning American Indians.
From this meeting came the birth of the American Indian Movement, commonly known as AIM. With this came the emergence of AIM leaders, such as Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt to name a few.
Little did anyone know that AIM would become instrumental in shaping not only the path of American Indians across the country, but the eyes of the world would follow AIM protests through the occupation at Alcatraz through the Trail of Broken Treaties, to the final conflict of the 1868 Sioux treaty of the Black Hills. This conflict would begin on February 27, 1973 and last seventy-one days. The occupation became known in history, as the Siege at Wounded Knee.
It began as the American Indian's stood against government atrocities,
and ended in an armed battle with US Armed Forces. Corruption within
the BIA and Tribal Council at an all time high, tension on the Pine
Ridge Indian reservation was on the increase and quickly getting out
of control. With a feeling close to despair, and knowing there was
nothing else for them to do, elders of the Lakota Nation asked the
American Indian Movement for assistance. This bringing to a head,
more than a hundred years of racial tension and a government corruption.
AIM member, Frank Clearwater was killed by heavy machine gun fire,
inside Wounded Knee.
Wounded Knee was a great victory for the Oglala Sioux as well as all other Indian Nations. For a short period of time in 1973, they were a free people once more.
Left-U.S. Marshalls' bunker on eastern perimeter of Wounded Knee.
It was estimated that the village took 20,000 rounds of fire in those two days-these 3 photos are not by Michelle.
After 71 days, the Siege at Wounded Knee had come to an end; with
the government making nearly 1200 arrests. But this would only mark
the beginning of what was known as the "Reign of Terror"
instigated by the FBI and the BIA. During the three years following
Wounded Knee, 64 tribal members were unsolved murder victims, 300
harassed and beaten, and 562 arrests were made, and of these arrests
only 15 people were convicted of any crime. A large price to pay for
71 days as a free people on the land of one's ancestors.
Click above to visit the AIM website!
Photographing from the Inside
At Wounded Knee the FBI set up roadblocks with tanks, and armed agents policed the area for over three months. Vignes was one of the few photographers to shoot from inside the standoff and created a lasting bond with AIM members and the Native American community. Her work as a social documentarian began in earnest with this project.
In the mid-70s Vignes started a long series on blues musicians, which culminated in the publication of three books: Oakland Blues, Bay Area Blues and The Blues. Her more recent work, "The Gospel," flows from her interest in African American music and spiritual traditions in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As a cofounder of the International Fund for Documentary Photography and a respected teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has helped to bridge photographers from different generations and continents. In 2000 she was presented the medal of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by France's minister of culture.
Selected Recent Exhibitions
Co-founder of the International Fund for Documentary Photography.
All photos ©1998 Michelle Vignes