When many people think of Alcatraz, visions of a high security prison come to mind. For most of us, it’s that island in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay, where high profile bank robbers and notorious Mafioso criminals were sent during the mid-20th century. Most people don’t associate Alcatraz with the arguably more important happenings once the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed in 1963, and the island became surplus government land.
The Trail to Alcatraz
For Native Americans, the 22 acre rock holds very different visions. Ones of resistance and struggle for self determination and ethnic pride. Over 40 years ago, Alcatraz gave birth to the Red Power movement; one of the most effective acts of Native American resistance in the twentieth century.
The United States termination polices of the 1940s – 1960s attempted to get Native Americans off Indian reservations and assimilated into US culture. It caused many Native Americans to move to the city where the promised assistance was not given. Many ended up poor and isolated from their culture and identity.
In the 1960s, Native Americans unified their grievances against a long history of broken promises by the US Government in the form of the Red Power Movement. The Movement, full of protests and demonstrations, took place alongside many changing ideologies of the Civil Rights Era. These changes, inspired by national movements surrounding race and war from the 1950s to the 1970s, provided Native Americans with inspiration, motivation and guidance to produce effective demonstrations of their own.
“We Hold The Rock!”
The Native American resistance movement gained traction around three attempts to occupy Alcatraz between 1964 and 1969. In the first two attempts, the occupants quickly proclaimed their rights to reclaim possession of the island – after it was declared surplus by the U.S. in 1964. Both times, the Coast Guard hurriedly removed the protesters from the island. Stories of the two occupations were published by the media, and provided a foundation of public interest for their cause.
On October 9, 1969, the cultural center of the United Bay Area Council of American Indian Affairs, was suspiciously destroyed by fire. The possibility of hate crime sparked Richard Oakes, the group’s undeclared spokesperson, to begin collaborating and planning for a third occupation of Alcatraz. On November 20th, 1969, Oakes and 78 Native Americans boarded the island.
Not long after the start of this third occupation, Oakes wrote a letter known as the Alcatraz Proclamation to the San Francisco Department of the Interior. “We are on Alcatraz Island to make known to the world that we have a right to use our land for our own benefit,” he said. The group of Native Americans claimed the island as their own according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 which gave Indians the right to acquire land declared surplus, abandoned, or retired by the federal government. They proposed to purchase the land for “twenty four dollars in glass beads and red cloth.” The “offer of $1.24 per acre [was] greater than the $0.47 per acre the white men [were then] paying California Indians for their lands,” said Oakes. The proclamation also presented their desire to construct a number of cultural institutions on the newly acquired land including: a Center for Native American Studies, an American Indian Spiritual Center, an Indian Center of Ecology, and a Great Indian Training School. This letter gained more media coverage which opened more opportunities for the Movement.
The occupation lasted a duration of 19 months and peacefully came to an end when the few remaining occupants were escorted off the island by the Coast Guard, FBI and other U.S officials. During its time on the island, the group proved its perseverance through two Coast Guard blockades and the government’s termination of water and electricity supply to the island.
The End of Termination
The occupation served to make the mainstream US public aware of the Native American termination policies and their terrible outcomes for Native Americans. The desire to rectify past injustices was helped by celebrities like Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory and Marlon Brando, all of whom visited the island. Creedance Clearwater Revival also donated $15,000 which was used to buy a boat (the Clearwater) to transport the protestors.
The groundswell of support in fairly short order motivated the government to make drastic changes in its policies. President Nixon renounced the governments previous termination policies and introduced the notion of “self-determination without termination.” Congress passed 52 pieces of legislation to support Native Americans self-determination from 1970 to 1971.
Every year on Thanksgiving Day since 1975, the legacy of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz is remembered by hundreds of people through the “Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, also known as Un-Thanksgiving Day, which is celebrated on the island. The ceremony honors the achievements of the leaders of the Red Power Movement as well as the still continuing struggle to defend the ways of life and sacred places of Native Americans.
- “You’re On Indian Land: The 1969 Indian Occupation of Alcatraz". Youtube.
- History 383 Discussion Guidelines – Red Power in California. Gayle Olson-Raymer. Humboldt.edu website.
- Alcatraz Is Not An Island. PBS.org website.
- We Hold the Rock. The Alcatraz Indian Occupation. Dr. Troy Johnson. NPS.gov website.
- The Alcatraz Proclamation to the Great White Father and his People. Indians of All Nations. UND.edu website.
- Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Gathering: Alcatraz Exhibit Honors American Indian Occupation. Huffington Post website.
- Occupation of Alcatraz. Wikipedia.