On the Occupation of Alcatraz Island
Indian Country Today
Alcatraz: the very name brings up many images in an individual’s mind—a prison for hardened criminals such as Al Capone; American Indians claiming the island as Indian Land; American Indian students from California universities landing on the island in the dark of night; or an old abandoned United States government facility in the middle of San Francisco Bay. With all of these visuals what is the right story? They all are correct, but for American Indians, it’s the Occupation of Alcatraz Island.
It actually begins in the early 60s when the United States government closed Alcatraz as a maximum security prison and moved the prisoners to other facilities. Soon after a group of American Indians led by two Sicangu Lakota, Richard McKenzie and Allen (Chauk) Cottier from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota landed on the island and claimed it for American Indians. This received some attention in the press, but was soon forgotten.
During this time, the United States government had begun a program that relocated American Indians from their homes on Indian reservations to large cities for technical training and job opportunities not available on their reservations. Thousands of American Indians took this opportunity and moved to San Francisco and other cities in the Bay Area. Because there was such a large number of Indian people in the Bay Area, an Indian group started an American Indian Center for the families and the young people to gather and support each other.
On October 10, 1969, the Indian Center burned down. With the total loss of the building the board of directors gathered at a small store provided to the center as a temporary site to discuss how to replace the center. Several ideas were floated and the discussion turned to getting enough publicity to begin a building fund. I brought up the original landing on Alcatraz and that we should do the same as a way to make the people aware of the loss of the Indian Center and the need to replace it. We could use the island as a temporary facility until we built a new Indian Center. The idea immediately received a positive response from all of the members of the board (I was the Vice President) so I made the motion to land on Alcatraz. It was at this meeting the Proclamation for Claiming the Island was written with several people providing input.
The plan was to have a number of boats meet us at the Fisherman’s Wharf and ferry a large number of American Indians (all ages) to the island where we would hold a press conference and begin the occupation of Alcatraz. It was a blustery Saturday when we all gathered to find out that our plan had changed. Earl Livermore, the Executive Director, had convinced the owner of a large yacht to take the large group who were gathered at the dock on board and circle the Island. While this was happening a group of young college students, including Richard Oakes, Joe Bill, LaNada Boyer, and Ross Harden, jumped overboard and swam to the island. This incident provided the opportunity on November 20, 1969 for the occupation of Alcatraz by a large group of college students who declared it Indian Land. The Proclamation, written at the meeting at the temporary site of the Indian Center was read by Richard Oakes.
The temporary Indian Center was the main point for gathering provisions and support for those on the island. Livermore and the Board of Directors were busy manning the phones, providing press releases, and keeping close contact with Oakes and the other leaders on the island. I chose to stay on the mainland and gather the needed supplies for those on the island. I worked closely with Livermore and the other members of the Indian Center staff to accomplish this.