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PHOTOS: National Park Service restores Native American graffiti on Alcatraz

by Michelle Lanz | Take Two®

1975 image of the water tower with Native American graffiti on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, Ca. NPS

The old federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island is at once, both one of the most iconic landmarks in California, and one of the most famous lockups in the world. 

Hosting more than one million visitors a year, tourists flock  to the tiny island to explore the old cell blocks and learn about the dark history of this forbidding island prison. But there's a lesser known history of the island.

Back in 1969, a group of Native Americans occupied the island for two years. It's a history written in graffiti that the National Park Service has been working to restore and preserve. 

 RELATED: See images of the graffiti being restored on Alcatraz

"Alcatraz has so many different facets of its history, and this is one that gets lost," said Alexandra Picavet, public affairs officer for the park. "It's overshadowed by the famous criminals that spent time on Alcatraz."

When the prison finally closed up shop in 1963, only a single guard was left to maintain the island's security. The following year, a group of Sioux indians, about 40 in total, attempted to occupy the island, citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that said any abandoned federal lands can be given back to Native American tribes that it had once belonged to. That occupation only lasted four hours before the group was ejected from the island. 

A group made up mainly of Native American students of various tribes successfully occupied the island in 1969, despite efforts of the Coast Guard to thwart them. They wanted to turn the island into a Native American cultural center, after the San Francisco Indian center had been destroyed by a fire. 

"They came out and initially their first landing on the island they did not succeed, they were sent away by that security guard," said Picavet. "A few days later, they got more people they were more organized and this time the security guard was sent away."

While occupying the prison, the group created various graffiti pieces with messages of peace, and welcoming other Indians to the island. 

"I think initially it was a way to communicate with the many boats that kept riding around the island. The tourist boats and the people who were just interested in what was going on," said Picavet. 

One of the most prominent examples of graffiti is visible from the dock when visitors come off the ferry. Emblazoned on an old water town are the words  "PEACE AND FREEDOM WELCOME HOME OF THE FREE INDIAN LAND."  The disintegrating water tower became a hazard, however, so the National Park Service decided to restore it and preserve the graffiti. The NPS called on some of the Native Americans involved with the occupation to help with the restoration.

"We did have Richard Oakes' family members, his grandson and his daughter," said Picavet. "Then we had two men who were on the island during the occupation take part in repainting the graffiti using pictures and some diagrams that we had drawn onto the water tower, so that it would be similar to what had been there."

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