Today in Native History: Occupation of Alcatraz Island Ends
On June 11, 1971, the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island ended when federal marshals removed the last of the protestors.
Three Coast Guard cutters bearing 20 armed marshals arrived on the island at 1:45 p.m., the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Fifteen Indians—six men, four women and five children—“surrendered peacefully.” No arrests were made.
The seizure of Alcatraz Island, formerly a federal penitentiary reserved for infamous criminals, was the longest Indian occupation of a federal facility in history. Organized by the group, Indians of All Tribes, the occupation began November 20, 1969, with demands for the title to the island and development of several Indian facilities, including a center for Native American studies, a spiritual center and a museum in the San Francisco area.
The occupation, which started with about 90 protesters, also sought recognition of the government’s ongoing mistreatment of Indians. In the mid-1950s, the U.S. introduced its Indian termination policy and began relocating Indians to urban areas—including the San Francisco Bay area.
“We moved onto Alcatraz Island because we feel that Indian people need a cultural center of their own,” states a December 16, 1969, letter from Indians of All Tribes. “For several decades, Indian people have not had enough control of training their young people. And without a cultural center of their own, we are afraid that the old Indian ways may be lost. We believe that the only way to keep them alive is for Indian people to do it themselves.”
The island was ready for the taking, said Adam Fortunate Eagle, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and an organizer of the occupation. The prison closed in 1963 and the government declared it “surplus land,” available for private ownership.
“The property was empty,” Fortunate Eagle told ICMN. “When the government declared it would be given away to the highest bidder, I saw this as an opportunity. The brass ring of history had been handed to us.”
Fortunate Eagle authored a Proclamation to the Great White Father and All His People, declaring his intent to “reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.” The proclamation, which professed a “wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land,” proposed a tongue-in-cheek treaty:
“We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago,” the proclamation states. “We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of that land for their own, to be held in trust by the American Indian Affairs and by the bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity—for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea.”
The treaty further offered the Caucasian inhabitants guidance into the “proper way of living,” including Native religion, education and life-ways “in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state.” Mohawk activist Richard Oakes read the proclamation publicly on November 9, 1969—11 days before the occupation began.
“We used satire and humor as a weapon,” said Fortunate Eagle, who orchestrated the occupation from San Francisco, but never lived on the island. “We were not going out to the island with weapons because we would have been wiped out in a day. When I organized the group, I said we would be warriors without weapons.”
At the height of the occupation of Alcatraz, Thanksgiving Day 1969, about 400 Indians lived on the island, Fortunate Eagle said. The federal government largely left protesters alone, deciding to end the occupation in June 1971 when the group was at its smallest.
Although the U.S. did not forfeit the island to Indians of All Tribes, the occupation did help change the way the federal government deals with Natives. In July 1970, President Richard Nixon officially rejected Indian termination policy, and many subsequent laws favoring Indians can be tied to the occupation of Alcatraz, Fortunate Eagle said.
“Because of Alcatraz, Indian tribes and organizations across the country got a boost of confidence,” he said. “These battles are long-lasting. Alcatraz laid the groundwork for lots of other things.”
In 1972, Alcatraz Island was included in the newly formed Golden Gate National Recreation Area.Operated by the National Park Service, the island includes exhibits that tell the story of the Indian occupation, said Craig Glassner, a veteran park ranger.
The National Park Service is working to repair the penitentiary buildings at Alcatraz, Glassner said. Plans also call for restoration of artifacts left behind by Native occupiers.
“Some of the areas out there are so dangerous visitors are not allowed,” he said. “Barbed wire is falling off the walls and catwalks are falling. But now we’re doing seismic retrofits of the prison, and even restoration of signage that existed during the Indian occupation.”