By 1969, in the midst of the American Civil Rights movement, two separate groups of American Indians from the San Francisco bay area were contemplating the idea of seizing the rocky island of Alcatraz. The prison which made the island famous had been shut down for more than six years, and local officials were debating what to do with the iconic island. When the San Francisco American Indian Center in San Francisco burned down in October of that year, the Indian activists were galvanized and, citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, they formed the multi-tribal group Indians of All Nations, and developed plans to occupy The Rock.
The plan met with resistance. About 75 Indian protestors gathered on Pier 39 on November 9, 1969, to announce their action to the press, but the hired boats didn't show. They hired another boat, but the captain refused to land, saying he would only ceremonially circle the island. Five men dove in and swam to Alcatraz, but they were removed by the Coast Guard and returned to the mainland. The demonstraters hired a third boat to bring them back that night, but that Captain suddenly pulled away from the dock after only 14 of the 25 occupiers on that trip could disembark; they were also soon discovered and returned to San Francisco. A third, more organized attempt was planned, and in the early morning hours of November 20 more than 90 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz. The island's caretaker, Glenn Dodson - 1/8 Indian himself - told the landers than they were trespassing, and then showed them to the warden's house. It was there that the occupiers would establish their headquarters.
The Coast Guard again attempted a removal, but the Indians refused to budge. US President Richard Nixon, whose administration was still reeling from public relations disasters having to do with the Vietnam war and the civil rights protests, ordered that the government forces not use force against the Alcatraz occupiers. The GSA sent a representative with an ultimatum to leave, and the Indians disregarded that as well. Richard Oakes, a charismatic Mohawk ironworker from upstate New York serving as the spokesman for the Indian occupiers, called in to the San Francisco Department of the Interior office, and left a message expressing their motivation and intentions. He ended with the words, "We seek peace."
Meanwhile, the occupation flourished. Celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda were shown around the island by Jim Thorpe's daughter Grace. Donations poured in from Indians and non-Indians alike. The occupiers celebrated "un-Thanksgiving" on the island less than a week after the November 20 landing. The occupiers developed a system of self-government and worked tirelessly repairing and improving their new living space. Plans were developed to turn the island into an Indian-centric complex of buildings including a spiritual center, a university, and a museum. News spread of the occupation, and thousands of Indians - singles and families, of all ages, from every nation, including many who had never met an Indian from a different tribe before - journeyed to San Francisco to join in. About fifteen members of the radical American Indian Movement journeyed from Minnesota to take part in the demonstration; one of them, movement veteran Dennis Banks, noted that "there was a lot of happiness amind those dripping walls". Creedence Clearwater Revival donated $15,000 which Indians of All Nations used to purchase their own boat, which they named the Clearwater. Oakes declared the words that became the rallying cry for the occupation: "We hold The Rock".
Over time, the occupation developed problems. The island, with no electricity or clean water, was becoming an increasingly harsh place to live. Protesters trickled back to the mainland and those who remained began squabbling with each other. Tragedy struck when Richard Oakes's 13-year-old stepdaughter, Yvonne (left), fell from an unfenced pier onto a concrete slab and died; Oakes and his family then left the island. Non-Indians from the hippie culture began to move on to the island. In June 1970, a fire gutted the lighthouse and several other buildings; the government blamed the Indians, but the occupiers, citing the distance between the four damaged buildings, blamed the blaze on government agents. Public safety concerns also were raised because that lighthouse and the fog signals were necessary for the safety of the passing ships. Coast Guard inspectors were met with armed Indians demanding water; someone fired a metal-tipped arrow at a crowded passing tour boat; two supertankers collided nearby and dumped oil into the bay. Although the last one was unrelated to the occupation, public opinion turned pretty sharply against the Indian occupiers.
The occupation lasted 19 months and 9 days, and the remaining 15 Indians were peacefully escorted off of Alcatraz on June 11, 1971. Through sheer determination and persistence, and with no deaths from violence, two small groups of like-minded Indian activists displayed a bold and powerful statement about their plight to the world stage, and elevated the prominence of American Indian civil rights. As a direct result, at least ten major US government policy shifts improved the education, health, and finances of American Indians.
Links and Sources:
Alcatraz is Not an Island, www.pbs.org, retrieved March 15, 2012.
"Alcatraz, Indian Land", by Ben Winton, in Native Peoples Magazine, Fall 1999.
"An Occupation Worth Applauding: Celebrate Un-Thanksgiving", by Mickey Z. on MRZine, retrieved March 16, 2012.
The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism, by Troy R. Johnson, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, by Dennis Banks with Richard Erdoes, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
You Are Now on Indian Land: The American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island, California, 1969, by Margaret J. Goldstein, Twenty-First Century Books, 2011. Photos of activists and of Yvonne Oakes both appear in this book; photographers are unknown.
Photo of sign by Wikipedia user Tewy, and was taken from Wikimedia Commons.