Missing the Meaning – Understanding the Material Culture of Protest

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Recently I collaborated with Dr. Miriam Villanueva of the Department of History and Social Science at Phillips Academy to create a new lesson that focused on both the American Indian Movement and the takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969 by Native activists. 

Our focus was to have students understand how Native protests are centered around issues regarding tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and meaningful intergovernmental consultation. We also sought to highlight how the ignorance of the American public regarding these issues perpetuates misconceptions about these protests while also connecting them to modern issues.

To do this we examined two protest signs; one from the 1969 Alcatraz Occupation and one from the recent Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)/Standing Rock protests. 

We asked the students to investigate the two types of meaning perceived in each of the signs: 

1.) the general public’s understanding of the sign. 

2.) the message the originator of the sign intended to convey. 

During the activity the students worked together to create the following interpretations of each of the protest signs we examined, based on other contextual information that we used.

For background information about the Alcatraz Protest

Incorrect Response: Native Americans are welcomed at the Island because it has always been Indian Land.
Correct Response: It is a commentary on how white people have simply taken what they wanted and Native people are now just simply playing by the same rules.

The students came to the conclusion that this particular sign is meant more as a commentary on the method used to claim Native land in the past – and less about saying all land was once Native land – when they read the following passage from the Proclamation written by Richard Oaks and other protesters at Alcatraz.

Proclamation to the Great White Father and All His People

We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.
We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty:

We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these 16 acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years. Our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the 47¢ per acre that the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land. We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of that land for their own, to be held in trust by the American Indian Affairs [sic] and by the bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity—for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea. We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state. We offer this treaty in good faith and wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with all white men.

Next we turned our attention to the recent protests around the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Standing Rock Sioux community. For background information on the DAPL/Standing Rock protests.

Incorrect Response: The protesters are violent!
Correct Response: The sign is satire and a play on “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” policy.

To interpret this particular sign the students drew upon their knowledge of Indian Boarding Schools that we covered in Fall Term. They remembered the program of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” that lead to the creation of the Indian boarding schools.

The students thoughtfully came to the conclusion that the protester was mimicking the phrase “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” to imply that if one removes the capitalist nature of the “Pilgrim” (or white man) that the water and environment will be saved.

We then ended the lesson with a group discussion about how these protests are all connected to each other while at the same time connected to sites and ancestors that are thousands of years old. The students also came up with possible solutions to ensure that the public has a better understanding of the reasons behind the protests so that their ultimate goals are not misinterpreted, thus undermining the power of the protest.

The conversations and points that the students in each of Dr. V’s three classes were incredibly thoughtful and perceptive. Both Dr. V and I thought that this was one of our best lessons that we have created because it seamlessly brought together modern and historical issues while engaging students in close reading of primary sources, mirroring the exact process that students are currently working through for their History 300 research papers.

Much of this lesson was based on the amazing work of April Beisaw and Glynnis E. Olin in their article From Alcatraz to Standing Rock: Archaeology and Contemporary Native American Protests (1969-Today)

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