The 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay began on November 20, 1969. The idea for the occupation grew out of the concerns of the San Francisco Indian community. It was also meant to address the concerns of Native faculty and students who wanted to use the occupation to address their complaints about the paucity of courses, programs, and services focused specifically on American Indians.
Alcatraz: A Symbol of Survival
After the occupation, Alcatraz very quickly became a symbol of something much greater. It became a symbol of indigenous survival in North America and, indeed, throughout the Western Hemisphere, despite centuries of colonialism. Calling themselves the Indians of All Tribes, the 78 mostly college-aged young people who launched the occupation of Alcatraz were led by Richard Oakes, a charismatic Mohawk from the St. Regis Reservation with a background working in high steel.
John Trudell, a Santee Sioux, hosted a broadcast from the prison’s main cell block that he called “Radio Free Alcatraz”. And LaNada Means, a Shoshone-Bannock, put her background as a student organizer at Berkeley to work as a coordinator, representative, and spokesperson. The media immediately descended upon Alcatraz, and the Indians of All Tribes garnered what seemed like universal support.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Purpose of Occupation of Alcatraz
The occupiers explained that they had seized the island because it was an abandoned federal property and that, according to an article in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, they had the right to demand that the federal government return it to American Indian ownership.
But Richard Oakes explained an even larger significance to their actions when he said, “This is actually a move, not so much to liberate the island but to liberate ourselves.” The occupation of Alcatraz was about decolonization.
The Indians of All Tribes then issued a formal proclamation in which they explained why the island prison made a perfect place to launch their liberation movement. Alcatraz had a lot in common with reservations, they argued. It was isolated and had no fresh running water. There was high unemployment, no health care facilities, and its residents, like so many Native people living on reservations, were reduced to abject dependency.
Learn more about American Indian experiences during the early Cold War period.
Concrete Actions to Restore the Island
The Indians of All Tribes also identified concrete actions to restore the island and revitalize tribal communities. First, they called for the establishment of a Center for Native American Studies that would serve as the basis for a renaissance in Native cultural arts and sciences.
Second, they demanded the establishment of a spiritual center to provide a space for the practice of ancient tribal religious ceremonies and medicine, as they put it. Third, they suggested that an American Indian Center of Ecology be established to provide the training to “restore our lands and waters to their pure natural state”.
Two more proposals called for the creation of a Great Indian Training School “to teach our people how to make a living in the world” and an American Indian Museum, which they said, “will depict our native foods and other cultural contributions that we’ve given to all the world” and all that non-Indians had taken away from them.
The Occupation of Alcatraz: A Bringer of Tragedies?
The occupation is widely remembered as a time of unity, shared purpose, and freedom. But it also brought hardship and tragedy. In January 1970, Richard Oakes’s daughter fell to her death. Six months later, a massive fire swept across the island. And yet, another incident left LaNada Means with severe burns.
What’s more, drugs, alcohol, and violence became increasingly hard to control. Meanwhile, the Richard M. Nixon administration blunted the protestors’ efforts. The federal government offered to turn Alcatraz over to the National Park Service and include monuments to Indians, but the occupiers rejected the proposal as patronizing.
Eventually, public interest and support were flagged. And in time, the government cut off power and telephone service to the island, making conditions virtually unlivable. When the dozen or so people who remained on the Rock were quietly evicted on June 11, 1971, it was almost as if the occupation had never happened. And yet, as a symbol of political liberation and cultural survival, Alcatraz lived on. It still does.
Learn more about the sites of contemporary Native struggle.
Did Native Resistance Die Down after Alcatraz?
Another demonstration took place at Fort Lawton, an abandoned army camp near Seattle, Washington. Eventually, the city of Seattle leased several acres to the Indians of All Tribes for the purposes of establishing an American Indian cultural center there.
As the occupation of Alcatraz wound down, another organization, the American Indian Movement or AIM, came to the fore. Founded in July 1968 in Minneapolis, AIM initially focused on urban issues, including access to social services and adequate housing, racism in the workplace and schools, and police brutality.
The scope of its activism, however, expanded swiftly. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, AIM formed street patrols to guard against police abuse, opened community-controlled “survival schools” in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and also spearheaded demonstrations at Plymouth Rock, Mount Rushmore, and an abandoned military base in Wisconsin.
Common Questions about the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz Island
The occupation of Alcatraz was started by 78 college-aged young men led by Richard Oakes. Richard Oakes was a charismatic Mohawk who had worked in the steel industry. They called themselves the Indians of All Tribes.
Although the occupation of Alcatraz is well remembered, it was also a time of tragedy. One of these tragedies was the death of Richard Oakes’s daughter. Moreover, violence, alcohol, and drug addiction increased dramatically during that period and became out of control.
After the end of the occupation of Alcatraz, another organization called the American Indian Movement or AIM began to operate. The organization’s main focus was on social issues such as racism, police brutality, and so forth.