“It’s more than just a rock to us, it’s a stepping stone to a better future.”
–John Trudell as told to a reporter after the takeover of Alcatraz Island
They kicked in the doors at the crack of dawn. It was the first direct action by the Milwaukee American Indian Movement (AIM) chapter taking place before my thirteen-year-old eyes. I watched from the outside, I did not know whether to jump for joy or run for my life. Several carloads of Native people broke into the old abandoned Coast Guard Station (CGS) on Lake Michigan on the east side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in August of 1971.
The door kickers were friends, relatives, boxers, artists and activists who planned this takeover for several weeks. They were tough Indian guys—boxers, street fighters, iron workers, intellectuals and hell raisers. There were the Moore brothers, both boxers from the Bad River Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin—Stanley and Hudson. Spider Denny, Oneida, was another boxer who was about six foot four, 280 pounds of romping, stomping Indian, not my words but that is what they used to call him and they did not call him Spider for nothing, when he was in the boxing ring it looked like he had eight fists pounding on any of his woeful opponents. Antsy Stanley had to be the first kicker and as such he hurt his leg trying to kick in the door of the house. No problem—there were plenty of other eager romping stomping Indians who took over to kick in the door. Shouts of victory were heard throughout the house as the door flew open and everyone immediately spread out to explore the property. There was an upstairs with two big bedrooms, a big kitchen and living room downstairs. That is where the main office was. Surprisingly the phones and electricity were still on. Stanley started limping around and the guys teased him relentlessly.
“Now all we have to do is wait,” said Herb Powless.
“Wait for what? The fucken cops to bust our heads open and take us to jail?” Spider replied.
“No, I called some news reporters. They’re coming to take pictures and get the scoop. So whoever has a warrant or don’t want publicity better leave now.”
No one left.
I stayed and witnessed it all, but I was not supposed to be there.
Herb Powless, Oneida, was the leader of the Milwaukee AIM chapter at the time. The idea to take over the CGS came from a young Ojibwe iron worker named Jerry Starr. More activists, friends and followers got on board quickly. They planned for several weeks how this was going to go down. No one knew how it would end. AIM was making a stand and using the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty which states that abandoned federal land is to be given back to the Indians, the same interpretation activists used to take over Alcatraz Island.
The November, 1969 takeover of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay area was the beginning of a new narrative for Native rights and a great wake up call to Native people all over turtle island. They called themselves—Indians of All Tribes and they were made up of about eighty Native families, college students and activists including future prominent Indigenous leaders John Trudell and Wilma Mankiller.
Alcatraz, once known as “The Rock,” was formerly a maximum security federal prison closed by Robert Kennedy in 1963 due to reports of cruelty and inhumane treatment of the prisoners. Al Capone was a prisoner there for a time. It started out as a prison for Native Americans. Imagine that.
The seizing of the island made national and international headlines. We young Native people saw for the first time our people speaking truth to power. Taking a stand and raising hell and raising awareness of the dire poverty, racism, discrimination, police brutality and lack of job training programs for Native people living in the cities and reservations.
AIM was started by many Natives in the same year, by mothers of sons and wives of husbands who were tired of the cops beating on their men folk after they had a few beers in the bars on Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis. The women got some money from the many churches in the neighborhood and set up their own patrol to pick up people from the bars so they would not be beaten and thrown in jail just for being Native. At the same time, Clyde Bellecourt started a movement in prison that would open doors for Native religious leaders to come inside the prison system and lead sweat lodge and other ceremonies to help Native inmates. The time was ripe for Native Americans to stand up and fight once again for our rights. Community members met in church basements and planned and strategized how the fight for justice was going to continue and who was going to do what. Native people were not going to get pushed around anymore. Little did they know that this movement would make national headlines throughout the country in the 1970’s—Native people and whites alike were afraid of AIM and the newspapers labeled AIM as militant and radical.
Too many reporters, historians and writers have written stories that AIM was responsible for the takeover of Alcatraz, but that is not true. I knew the people who started AIM and I knew the people who took over Alcatraz—they were not the same people although some of the same people who were involved with the Alcatraz takeover did participate in AIM events later. It’s very important that the distinction is understood; the history needs to be corrected.
In the planning stages of the Milwaukee takeover my older sister Darlene came to our house to give us the low down and let us know that we could participate if we wanted. She was explaining the details to my brother Jack, my sister Janice and me when mom heard about the plan. Mom then questioned the safety of the whole thing, “That’s breaking and entering the cops could arrest all of you—there could be violence, you all could get hurt.”
Jack looked at me and I looked back, of course we wanted to be in on the action. This was just like the Alcatraz takeover! Darlene weakly answered, “We have the treaty behind us, it’s unused federal property and that Coast Guard Station has been abandoned for years, we could use that for a cultural center for the kids. It’s an eyesore and no one cares about that old property in this town. It’s just sitting there.”
Mom quickly retorted, “That old abandoned property is right on the Lake. You don’t know what these people will do—they see Indians, their hair stands up on end and they could go all Andrew Jackson on you. Anything could happen. These kids could get hurt. Jack and Ruthie are minors. It sounds too dangerous—I don’t want them to participate, under no circumstances, period.” We all knew once mom made her mind up there was no changing it.
Darlene knew there would be no more discussion with mom so she left. Mom was not happy that Darlene was going either but she was of age and there was nothing she could do about it. Mom usually supported AIM and the stands they took for Native people but this time, she was wary and she forbid me and Jack to participate—but me and Jack had other plans. I knew Jack was going to sneak out just the way he looked at me, I read mischief many times on that face. Since the Lake was only seven blocks away, it would be very difficult to keep us out of that action. Jack was a sixteen-year-old athletic six-foot-two-inch young man—he did not need anyone’s permission to do anything. We never openly discussed what we were thinking so I waited and listened for Jack to sneak out first. Sure enough he snuck out the back door and I very quietly waited a few minutes and followed silently behind him. He never saw me and I kept it that way all the way to the lake in the dark at three in the morning.
I kept my distance—I was ready to dart between buildings if he ever turned around. I knew every inch of Brady Street and knew most of the people who hung around the many bars. There were few people and few cars on the street, it was quiet and a bit eerie but that did not stop me, I was full of adrenaline. Brady Street ran east and west less than a mile long and everyone knew everyone. In those days it was a largely Italian immigrant community which also housed a big Hippy population. With small craft shops, restaurants, an Italian bakery which has some of the best Italian rolls and bread in the mid-west, a huge Catholic Church which woke us up every Sunday morning with its incredibly loud chimes, a fire station across from the church, a busy George Webb hamburger joint, a Laundromat, a few apartment buildings sprinkled in between the small shops, the stores and the bars Brady Street became a tourist destination. It was the cool side of town with Lake Michigan at the east end of the street. Every year Brady Street was blocked off for a festival where music was played on several stages and the smell of marijuana wafted through the streets while food, beer and other spirits were enjoyed by both Italian mobsters and Hippies. My brother Mike who called himself Cochise ran the streets—everyone knew him. My family blended in, I felt safe, this was my neighborhood.
I walked down the empty streets not knowing what to expect once I got there, but hoping upon hope that I would not end up in jail. I was fired up, excited and believing that this takeover was justified given all the lakeside land that was taken from my people. This was my true home. That place was special—I remember meeting a girl about my age a few years before who lived on that very property with her family in the two-story house with a rope fence separating it from a huge grassy space where people came to play Frisbee or throw a ball in the summer—me, my brothers and their friends used to play football there in the wintertime. There were two buildings on that property—both white stucco, the house where she and her parents lived was a two story A-frame house and the other building was a much larger two-story building which housed the servicemen, with two boat launches on the lake and a cool look-out tower on top. We played volleyball and jumped rope, she told me she was an only child. It seemed like an idyllic and peaceful existence. Before it got dark I left wishing that I could be her. Unfortunately I do not even remember her name. I wondered what happened to her and her family, why they did not live there anymore? Why would they leave such a beautiful and peaceful place? I was eager to see what her house looked like from the inside.
At the end of Brady Street you run into Farwell then up another block is Prospect Avenue, which runs north and south lined with old mansions and fancy apartments. Cross the street and walk about a half block and you run into a huge staircase where at the top you can see a panoramic view of Lake Michigan and the CGS. Go down to the bottom of the stairs and straight on is a huge grassy area about the size of a football field—go left or north and that leads to the beaches, a fishing pier, and a marina—go south past the murky lagoon which housed the “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” (that is what all the kids believed anyway) and eventually you run into the famous War Memorial Building which was completed on my birthday. Every Fourth of July there was a beautiful fireworks show on the Lake straight across from Juneau Park where all the neighborhood kids used to sit on the big hill and watch the fireworks.
As I got closer to the CGS I remember my mom telling us that we were the original inhabitants of this land, this very land on the lakefront when in the 1830s the US government kicked us all off it. My family, my Potawatomi people had to march for hundreds of miles in the winter where many people, children, elders, babies starved to death or got sick and died. Known as the Potawatomi Death March, this violent history always pissed me off. I felt helpless and sometimes hopeless. I also realized that taking over the Coast Guard Station was dangerous, but I wanted to stand with my brothers and sisters. So I made a decision to defy my mom and be a part of this takeover because I wanted to do something exciting. I did not want to see myself as another helpless, hopeless Native girl—I wanted to be a warrior. White man’s laws be damned!
And here I am, I arrived! I was not so scared of the police but more what my mom would do if we got arrested. The police might not have a chance against all those huge romping stomping Indians anyway. Many battles between my Native people and the soldiers began at dawn and here we go again.
The soft orange hue of the sun was rising above the lake, if I wasn’t so scared I would have appreciated the beauty of the sun taking over the dark. I hid behind a tree near the small house, my brother sat on a small bridge by the lake and finally saw me but I knew he wouldn’t snitch on me. I watched from afar—then I saw them, four carloads of angry and loud Natives driving up the long gravel driveway onto the property on Lakefront Drive.
As the sun moved over the lake and dawn became morning more people came by. Phone calls were made from the inside, family and friends brought food, sleeping bags and other essentials. It did not take long for word to get out in the Native community. As for the rest of the world—the newspaper, television and radio reporters, photographers from various magazines and newspapers rushed to the site of the great Indian takeover. They could not wait to report on the radical Indians who took over an abandoned Coast Guard Station. I do not know what they expected but I imagine it made for exciting television and action-packed news footage. There was no buckskin, bow and arrows or war paint—we were told by AIM leadership not to talk or answer any of their questions but there were definitely some poses for the press by some of the young people and many laughs after the press left. As per usual AIM leadership took full control and credit for the whole action-packed affair.
By this time the second larger structure’s lock was picked and opened for all to go inside and explore. It was a two-story white stucco building known as the boathouse with a six-by-six foot third floor tower with a three hundred sixty view of the lake and the surrounding area. There was one big room and several smaller rooms on the second floor and the bottom floor docked the boats. By this time no one cared that I was there and that was a relief. I got to roam freely with everybody else. By the way, my mom never found out that I sneaked out of the house.
The cops did come but not the way everyone thought. Several police squads entered the property, inspected the whole place and had a closed-door meeting with Powless and several other AIM men. The police made it clear that they were not going to move anybody out as long as things stayed peaceful and no damage or harm was done to the property. While all that was happening the AIM security immediately went to work with some plywood and paint and put up a sign that said, “American Indian Movement Reservation” at the gate. The young men were assigned to security and stood guard at the gate and placed strategically around the property 24/7. Nobody had any weapons, only homemade clubs and some bats were carried by the security.
The national office of the Coast Guard was contacted and made the statement that they were not going to remove the Indians since the property was abandoned—therefore there was no need to oust the intruders as long as the occupation remained peaceful. The takeover of the CGS made news headlines for several days; some headlines from the Milwaukee Journal: “Militant Indians Seize Old Coast Guard Site.” “Indian Squatters Vow to Stay Put.”
Herb Powless stated that they would not leave unless forcibly removed. The standoff was made clear and the lines were drawn by Powless who continued to tell the public and the press, “For those who criticize the violence of the takeover, think of all the killing, terror, stealing and forced removal of our people from our ancestral lands—many tribes were wiped off the face of the earth due to their violence.”
As the days went on and the television and newspapers moved on to other stories, the story of the takeover continued to grow throughout the state of Wisconsin, and the Native community continued their unwavering support. Native people came from all over Wisconsin and several other neighboring states to stay and participate in some of the feasts and ceremonies that were conducted on the property. Rules were put in place that there was to be no alcohol or illegal drugs on the premises. There was an overwhelming amount of money donated, as well as food, clothes, coats, blankets and other life essentials; lawyers and medical teams even offered their services. I remember some hippies came down to the CGS with several bags of George Webb hamburgers and French fries—that put a big smile on my face.
Towards the end of the summer, Dennis Banks brought Crow Dog, a Rosebud, SD spiritual leader and a vanload of young Natives from Minneapolis to the CGS to conduct a sacred Yuwipi Ceremony at the new AIM digs. Yuwipi, a Lakota word which means, “They wrap him up,” is a healing ceremony for an individual or a small group of people. Powless invited Crow Dog to bless the land and keep us safe. Crow Dog said the land had a lot of sacred spirits there. It was right on Lake Michigan–where the Prairie Band of Potawatomi, my ancestors lived until they were removed to Kansas by the US government. As Charlie Hill, the famous Oneida comedian would say, “We had a little real estate problem.” Being removed from lakefront property to a dustbowl — I would definitely agree with that.
We were all excited for this sacred event. The large living room of the small house was prepared, all the furniture was taken out, all the windows were shut and darkened with blankets. An altar was set up in the center of the room surrounded by tobacco ties where Crow Dog sat with his sacred pipe and drum. We entered and sat down in an outside circle. After we were all seated, Crow Dog and his helpers laid him in a blanket and tied him up with ropes. I had never witnessed anything like that before; we were told to take off any jewelry we had on, to be silent and think good thoughts. I was a bit scared not knowing what to expect. There were about twenty to thirty people sitting on the floor as I watched with apprehension and anticipation. Once we were all sitting and Crow Dog was tied up good, he told the people outside the room to close the door, and told them no matter what they heard not to open the door until they were told to by him, they nailed a piece of plywood over the door. We were in tight! All the lights were turned off and it became completely black in there. There were some gasps but everyone became quiet and his helpers started to sing. I could hear Crow Dog talking in Lakota.
The singing got louder, there were rattles pounding on the floor and lights flickering everywhere. I felt and heard a bird flying in the room. The wings flapped very close to my face and head. With the darkness, the singing, and the pounding I felt transported. I felt I was all alone in that room. I was not afraid anymore but rather felt an energy flow through me. All the fear and anxiety left me and I felt lighter. We all took turns and prayed out loud or silently, it was our choice. When Dennis Banks prayed out loud, the spirits became louder and he had to almost yell to be heard. That was powerful. When it was my turn, I said “All my relations” and passed it on. I was only 14 years old and extremely shy. While it was hot in that room with all the people in there, a cool breeze came through and it felt so good. Where it came from who knew but everyone in that room felt it.
When the ceremony was over and the lights turned on, Crow Dog was sitting in the middle of the altar smoking his pipe. He told us the spirits untied him. Crow Dog also shared with us that he never led a ceremony as powerful as that one and that there were many old spirits there. I never questioned that because I heard him talking to someone. What I witnessed that night changed my life. My spiritual reality was reawakened and I continue to believe in the spirits of my ancestors and their help in our survival against great odds. I will always remember with great fondness that blessed time and the goodness that came from it.
As the days became weeks and the weeks became months AIM let their guard down. The city of Milwaukee quietly negotiated with AIM, the Coast Guard, the United States Department of Justice and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in order to come to an amicable solution. Eventually the city gave AIM the deed to the property with no criminal convictions, mostly due to the BIA who negotiated on the behalf of AIM after seeing the good that was happening on that one acre of land.
That fall, a young Menominee teacher named Dorothy LePage and several Native mothers started an elementary school on the premises—the Indian Community School. The big building was converted into classrooms and Native kids were bused in from the inner city to go to school on the lake—daily lunch and snacks were provided. There was plenty of room for the children to play during recess, it was great to see the children learning and playing. That was the beginning of one of the most successful Native American school models in the state of Wisconsin still going today–in a real school building with programs built into the curriculum that teach Native history and culture. After the school moved, the CGS premises became a halfway house for Native men to heal after getting out of prison or from alcohol/drug treatment centers. As the years went by, sadly the CGS became uninhabitable and was condemned. The buildings were eventually torn down—today there is no sign that the Coast Guard Station ever existed. Last summer there was a celebration of the fifty-year anniversary near the original site. While most of the people who actually took over the CGS are gone, the memory is still in the minds and hearts of their children and grandchildren. Our history will not be erased. With today’s militarization of the police, we all do realize that these times will never be repeated.