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Alcatraz occupation changed path of Hill’s life

On November 20, 1969 Native American activists took over Alcatraz Island capturing the attention of America and a 33-year-old Oneida living in Ontario, California, east of Los Angeles.

“I was working in a beauty shop as a hairdresser,” said Gerald Hill, now 83 and Chief Justice for the Oneida Nation. “My friends were asking me ‘what are they doing?’ and I said, … ‘I don’t know.’”

There were a lot of protests going on around that time, according to Hill.

“Things were going on, riots were happening, everybody was just rebelling against something,” he said.

Hill decided to quit his job to travel to the San Francisco area to learn more about the occupation.

“I quit my job and I moved up to Alcatraz. My ladies were saying ‘why do you want to do that for? You got it made here.’ I really didn’t have any answer, I just didn’t want to do (hairdressing) anymore. And I just threw myself in there … I’ll just see what happens,” he said.

What he found was a semi-chaotic situation with some people with lofty ideals and plans and others enjoying the lack of authority on the former prison island.

“We’re going to build a university, and this is going to be the equivalent of the Statue of Liberty on the west coast but for Indians. And you look at it and say how the hell are they going to do all of that,” said Hill. “There didn’t seem to be any organized anything.”

Hill visited the island four times over three months.

“Each time I was there, I was learning something about Indian activism. I really didn’t know anything about that,” he said. He met with native leaders such as Richard Oaks, and Peter Bluecloud, both Mohawk and became interested in Indian politics.

Early on there were donations of food, money and goods that sustained the occupiers.

“There was a room in one of the buildings that they had just tons of books that were donated,” said Hill. “I got some kids to go up there with me … we tried to sort the books.” They were overwhelmed with the number of books.

“It was really kind of impossible to do anything with it,” he said. “That was my feeble attempt to bring order.”

It was the lack of order that motivated Hill to eventually return to southern California.

“There were a lot of rowdy, really rugged people, and there was a lot of drinking, there was a lot of drugs, there was a lot of violence, so it was kind of a scary place,” he said.

While waiting on the pier to go back to Alcatraz, Hill overheard a group of men talking.

“I was out there, and I was just listening to these guys talk, and they were talking about killing somebody,” he said. “If I go back then I feel like I have a duty to try and do something but there’s nobody in charge to go tell.”

Hill decided not to return to the island. He realized later that it was “just drunk talk”, but the experience made him feel cowardly for leaving.

“I tried to go back to work, and my ladies started making appointments with me again, but my mind was completely blown. I didn’t want to be there,” said Hill.

He struggled to do everyday things.

“I couldn’t do normal stuff, I couldn’t go shopping. At the island, all we had was boloney sandwiches almost all the time,” Hill said. “I would just ride my bicycle … I think I was just tiring myself out so I wouldn’t have to think about things.”

“Little by little I was taking care of myself like that.”

During that time, Hill met Art Hill (no relation), a recruiter from California State University – Northridge at a party. Art Hill helped Hill transfer his college credits, get scholarships and his GI Bill, and got him housing near campus.

“I kept thinking that they were going to realize that they made a mistake and boot me out,” said Hill. “That didn’t happen, so I kept on going.”

The former hairdresser became an activist taking part in a protest against displaying Native American remains at what was then known as the Southwest Museum in Las Angeles. He was part of a dozen protesters who chained themselves to a radiator near the display. He also met with Native American leaders, like Tom Porter who was bringing the White Roots of Peace to different campuses and reservation. Across the country and back in Wisconsin Native Americans were protesting and occupying abandoned property like the Coast Guard station in Milwaukee and the Alexian Brothers Novitiate in Gresham.

“Indians were just doing (stuff) all over the place,” said Hill.

The protests were pushback against government policies such as relocation and termination.

“It was a very unique experience, and later on after I went to school, and after I settled down in my brain a little bit, I could see the connection between all these uprisings going on AIM, all the those guys making their big old … speeches, and then coming home and going to law school … we were modernizing Indian Country,” said Hill. “Nobody was doing it individually. There was no leader, it was like an idea that had come up and tribes were getting more aggressive.”

From those days of occupations and protests came changes to how tribes deal with the federal and state governments.

“It was kind of a reflection of energy that had an opportunity to put its roots in and settle down because that’s when we got really active into government contracting, and that’s what led us to cigarettes and bingo and casinos,” said Hill.

“This economic boom that we’ve been on for a couple of generations … grew out of that thing that happened 50 years ago,” said Hill.

 

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