The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: November 1969- June 1971

For this week’s blog post I am going to be talking about the occupation of the Island of Alcatraz in 1969 by group of Native American Indians known collectively as the Indians of All Tribes. Located offshore from San Francisco Bay California, this historical island is most recognised as a dangerous and tough prison for inmates to complete their sentences in. As a result of the nineteen months that the occupation lasted from November 1969, the Island’s history would change dramatically as the Island quickly became the centre of American and international news. I therefore aim to cover the events of the 1969 occupation and the two earlier short occupations on March 1964 and November 9th 1969, and to put the occupations into context of both wider Native American issues and the American political and social scene during the mid-twentieth century.

We can almost see a build up to events of November 20th 1969 during the events of the same decade. The first occupation of Alcatraz Island, carried out by five Sioux American Indians led by Richard McKenzie began on March 9th 1964 and only lasted four hours. The penitentiary had been closed since 1963 and the Federal Government was in the process of transferring the island to the city of San Francisco for development. The Sioux Indians leading the occupation believed that they had found a provision within the 1868 Sioux Treaty that stated that all Federal land which became unused would revert back to the ownership of the Sioux people. As Alcatraz was one such site, the Native Indians saw they had a right to the land. However, after four hours the five Sioux Indians left the island peacefully. As a result of the 1964 occupation, the island was re-occupied briefly again on November 9th 1969 for one night. For the occupation a boat carried Richard Oakes (Mohawk), Jim Vaughn (Cherokee), Joe Bill (Eskimo), Ross Harden (Ho-Chunk) and Jerry Hatch close to the island. Then the men jumped overboard, swam to shore, and claimed the island by right of discovery. Despite the Coast Guard quickly removing the five men, later on that day, a larger group of fourteen people made their way to the island. The next day, the group proclaimed the island by right of discovery and then they left the island. Plans were set and on November 20th 1969 the major occupation began under the unofficial leadership of Richard Oakes and his family.

Around 79 American Indians landed on the Island on the 20th, passing an attempted Coast Guard blockade and set about forming councils within the group to decide their next move. The group consisted mainly of students but also included families with children. The Indians, represented increasingly in the media by Richard Oakes also release the Alcatraz Proclamation, stating the terms to which they would buy the island and use it as a symbol for the world to see how the American Indian had suffered. (A Link to the Proclamation is at the end of the blog). By the end of 1969 however, the organisation on the island was in disarray, as two groups rose in opposition against Richard Oakes and there was also the issue that many students left to return to school. As support grew for the American Indians on the island, non-Indians, mainly part of the hippie culture, move onto the island bringing with them alcohol and drugs. The Oakes family also left during this time as they suffered a terrible tragedy as their daughter, whilst playing in one the prison structures, fell to her death.

The departure of the Oakes family however did not diminish the resistance of the occupying group. The Indians received a great deal of support from both on a local level and a national level. The occupation brought together Indian people from across the United States, Canada, Alaska, Mexico and South America. During 1970 the Indian of All Tribes (IAT) were entrenched on the island and demanded nothing less than the full title to the island, the establishment of a university and the construction of a cultural centre on the island from the government. In response to this, the government proposed a $50,000 urban planning grant as an enticement for leaving the island. The Indians refused and negotiations broke down. It is worth noting that the money was given to the Bay Area Native American Council after the negotiations broke down. [1] On the island in the meanwhile, the government shut off the electrical power and removed the water barge which had provided fresh water to the occupiers. A fire too broke out and destroyed the warden’s home, the lighthouse and the doctor’s home. ‘The occupation continued at a slow pace, both sides now in a retrenched position, the Indians living a harsh life, no heat or electrical power … Alcatraz Island reminded them of a reservation.’ [2] As the government became increasingly frustrated by the occupation and public support decline, it came the time on June 10th 1971 to end the occupation. Federal agents, FBI agents and Special Forces police swarmed the island and peacefully removed five women, four children and six unarmed Indian men. The occupation had ended.

In context, the occupation of Alcatraz Island can undoubtedly be seen as justified because of the treatment of Native American Indians over the course of a 300-400 year period. From the beginning of early European and American colonisation of America, Native American Indians had slowly been pushed westwards as land was needed for the white settlers. It had got to the point where Indians were forced onto reserves of land and forced to live on the margins of society. Arriving into the twentieth century the reservation policy was changed to a policy of relocation. During the 1950s 100,000 American Indians were moved into urban areas as the reserve land (under House Resolution 108 Bill) was made available for development. The government promised a better life that never arrived. Employment help never came and racism against American Indians became more evident and dangerous. In the wider context the rise of the Native American voice also came as many other groups, force to the edge and bottom of society, increasing protested and fought for equal rights. The Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the rise of LaRaza (a Hispanic Movement) to name a few were also sweeping the American nation, particularly at colleges.

To conclude, whilst the occupation did not fulfil its main aims presented to the government it was not a total failure. In many respects it allowed the underlying goal to be established and worked towards over the future. The goal was to ‘awaken the American public to the reality of the plight of the First Americans and to assert the need for Indian Self-determination.’ [3] As a result of the occupation, the American Government ended the policy of termination and Indians found themselves increasingly involved in government departments that affected American Indians. Indian education was also expanded, the notable example being Navajo Community College the first college in America planned, developed and operated by and for Indians was established. Though the occupation of Alcatraz Island was a key historic moment for Native American activism and self-determination, there were still battles that needed to be fought if American Indians were to truly be equal.

[1] Troy Johnson., ‘The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Roots of American Indian Activism’ Wicazzo Sa Review, 10 (1994), 71.
[2]Ibid., 73.
[3]Ibid., 75.

Sources;
-Troy Johnson., ‘The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Roots of American Indian Activism’ Wicazzo Sa Review, 10 (1994).
-Clara Sue Kidwell & Alan Velie., Native American Studies (Edinburgh, 2005).
-This site has the Alcatraz Proclamation on and is defiantly worth a read;
http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=ALCATRAZ_Proclamation
-1969 OCCUPATION OF ALCATRAZ; http://www.nativevillage.org/Inspiration-/Occupation%20of%20Alcatraz%20and%20the%20Alcatraz%20Proclamation%20alcatraz_proclamation.htm

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