Voices from Alcatraz Island

AP Photo / American Indians play ball games outside the prison wall on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco during their occupation of the island in this November 26, 1969 photo. The sign reading "INDIANS WELCOME," is one of the few physical reminders that 45 years ago a group of American Indians clung to the barren, bony slopes of Alcatraz for 19 months, winning the attention of the world and igniting a passion for civil rights.

Indian Country Today

What was the occupation of Alcatraz Island like? Six Natives talk about it

The Occupation of Alcatraz Island began on November 20, 1969 and lasted 19 months. It was the longest Indian occupation of a federal facility in history and it helped shape federal Indian policy for the next half-century. But what was the first week of the occupation like? Five Natives who were there tell ICMN about it in their own words.

Dean Chavers (Lumbee)

I was driving a yellow cab the day 14 Indian people jumped off a boat and swam to Alcatraz Island. I got off work at 1 a.m., went home to bed, and was in the Native American Studies office at the University of California, Berkeley by 8 a.m. The place was going crazy. I asked Carmen Christie what the excitement was all about, and she said, “LaNada [Boyer] and them took over Alcatraz Island yesterday. They jumped off a boat and swam over there. But they are coming back to the Indian Center. Can we go over and meet them?”

So six of us jumped in my car and ran across the Bay Bridge to get to Sixteenth Street. The place was full when we got there. The 14 had just gotten there and were hungry. Someone went out and bought some food and they started planning how to go back and take the Island for good. We were there until midnight. Richard Oakes, the leader, led hours of discussion on how to do it. The consensus was that we would go back in two weeks, take a large group of American Indian college students, take bedrolls, food, pots and pans, and plan to stay.

The night of November 19 was set for the occupation of Alcatraz Island. Richard lined up some boats of hippies from Sausalito and we met at the Indian Center again. From there we left about 11 p.m. to get to the boats. When we got there, someone said, “Who’s going to call the press?” Richard said, “Oh shit! We forgot. Dean, you’re the oldest one here, and you know how to write. Go back to the Indian Center and call the press. You’re now the mainland coordinator.” I did that for six weeks, never setting foot in class at UC Berkeley.

One of the 14 UCLA students volunteered to go back with me and we started looking up the radio, TV, and newspapers in San Francisco, Marin County, Oakland, and San Jose. We got no sleep that night. We started calling them about 5:00 and 30 of them showed up at 8:30 for our impromptu press conference. They were there for only half an hour, then went running off to get boats to take them to the Island. They could not get on, since the Coast Guard had it blockaded.

​But the news hit the media and was the lead story for weeks. The San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and media in Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tulsa, Denver, and Boston ran front-page stories about the occupation of Alcatraz. The angle was the reversal of history—Indians taking back land instead of having it taken.

We had our own Alcatraz Navy of 27 boats. I had to maintain contact with them daily. They brought food up the western side of the Island and Indians on top pulled it up the 70-degree cliff in fishing nets. The Coast Guard took away the blockade on Sunday afternoon after I said we would not give up the Island willingly, that women, children, and elders were out there, and they would look like a bunch of goons if they took people off the Island.

The American Indian Movement leaders came out the next week and told Richard they would take over and run it. Richard told them in colorful terms to get off the Island and they did. But the press still mistakenly says it was AIM who took over the Island. It was not; it was Indian college students from Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Davis, Sacramento, UCLA, and Chico. President Richard Nixon came out with his highly progressive Indian policy statement the following July, and the rest is history.

The occupiers stayed there for 19 months. LaNada Boyer (Shoshone-Bannock), the real leader of the occupation, was there the whole time. She later finished her doctorate and now works for her tribe.

Verna Clinton Tullie (Navajo)

In 1969, this Community College of San Francisco student was teaching silkscreen printing for the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program when word came. The deed to Alcatraz land was up for grabs and opened to worldwide bids. Shortly after, the San Francisco American Indian Center burned down and steadfast San Francisco State College Native American students came to a consensus to take over the island for a new Indian Center on the island. An elder pointed out it was treaty land and was stolen by San Francisco to make way for a prison. Reference to the Treaty of Fort Laramie shifted the plan to reclaim Alcatraz Island as Native land.

With Pentax camera and art journal in hand, I expeditiously set out and answered the “call” of fellow college students from UCLA, Oregon, Arizona, and points beyond my comprehension to occupy the Rock. With good intentions, hundreds of Natives left their livelihoods and took residence in prison guard apartments, cells, and checked into Hotel Alcatraz. It was ironic, strange, and yet we were energized with a different air of defiance.

Grace Thorpe, the daughter of renowned Sac and Fox athlete Jim Thorpe and I walked into the Warden’s house, looked at each other and said, “Shall we take over this house?” We became roommates and cleaned our room and put a sign up, “Occupied.” She shared her stories and legal fight to have her father’s Olympic metals returned to the Sac and Fox Tribe and family. Hundreds of notable people came together in the main cell block to break bread and participate in ceremonies held by Medicine People.

​It was about the circle of life, elements, and what brought us together. Above all, I was also mesmerized by meeting people from all Nations. I assisted Buffy Sainte-Marie to prepare for a benefit performance at Stanford University. Back on the island, I was meeting and spending time with influential women like LaNada Means, Bea Medicine, Stella Leach, and Grace Thorpe, and my friend Eldy Bratt and her son Benjamin Bratt. They were all strong-willed and my inspiration to teach young minds and dabble as an author and illustrator of Native stories.

Dean Chavers made me talk on the phone to Senator Goldwater, the man who introduced legislation to take all my land at Navajo and give it to the Hopi Tribe. He says, “Here, talk to Barry Goldwater.” All I heard was, one, two, three, “You’re on the air!” He said that the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute was settled. Naively, I babbled out single words about an issue unknown to me. In 1994, when I met him again, the once humiliated young girl counter-jabbed; “Sir, you led my people to slaughter and turned my family’s way of life upside down.” And, “Sir, you are not God!” His final answer, “No young lady, I am not.” He called me a little girl and insulted me on the radio. We have lost all our land. We only have four sheep left.

As Captain Anderson’s boat taxied us back and forth to Alcatraz, the Indians of All Tribes’ thunderous demonstration of unity, attacked U.S. policies on assimilation, genocide, human rights, and it was massive, real, and historic.

Katherine (Jody) Beaulieu

At three in the morning on November 20, 1969 three boats showed up at an undisclosed location to take us to the island. Actually, we left from Sausalito as the Coast Guard must have got word that we would be taking off from Fisherman’s Wharf.

John Whitefox and I, along with my dog, were in the first group to reach the island. Walking along we were approached by the “caretaker,” who I believe had a rifle over his shoulder. He asked us who we were. We said: “We are Indians and we are here to reclaim the island.” He turned around and went back in.

As I had a long trip that day coming down from Davis campus I was ready to call it a night. Now mind you I did not know any of the other 78 people who made it to the island but never once did I feel I was with strangers. I do remember the drums and songs before I bunked down in the Warden’s house by the main cell block area. The house no longer stands.

Early that morning my dog alerted me that someone had entered. I found out when I got up from others that I was on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The picture was of me curled up in my sleeping bag with my dog on guard.

That was the beginning of the end of termination! Oh yes, Alcatraz has inspired so many to stand strong! President Richard Nixon fixed it with his Indian policy statement the next July. We didn’t know how close he was with his football coach, Wallace Newman, a full blood Luiseno Indian.

I was one of the few students at the University of California, Davis. I am now the tribal council secretary for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. My uncle Roger Jourdain was the chairman of the tribe for 32 years.

Carol Miller and Elaine Dempsey (Wintun)

I remember hearing the news that a group of Indians had occupied Alcatraz Island based upon the existing 1868 Treaty provision returning unused federal lands to American Indian tribes. I was working at a camera shop in Palo Alto at the time and, along with my cousin, Elaine, planning to move south to attend Cal-State Long Beach’s new American Indian Studies Program in 1970. As the effort continued to make news and the number of occupiers grew, we California Wintun decided to lend our support. It seemed like strength in numbers was a good idea.

Getting to Alcatraz was not simple. By the time we had enough information and arrangements, it was less dangerous than when the Coast Guard patrol boats were actively attempting to prevent landings. Still, we had to trust those who helped us and we needed our own preparations for camping in service-deficient conditions. It was well-reported that none of the systems were functioning on Alcatraz Island. We finally caught a ride on a small boat piloted by a man called “Cadillac.” He told us a little about what to expect and how to get from the landing dock to the upper island where most of the people were staying. As we boated closer to Alcatraz we saw “Indian Land” painted high up. It was exciting and a bit scary. We landed and began the climb to the higher level lugging our sleeping bags and necessities.

On the high ground in front of the Warden’s house we saw lots of people in groups. Some were talking to interviewers holding cameras, some were making chips fly on a totem-in-process and some were just looking over each other and the new arrivals. We knew NO ONE. While we were standing with our stuff we heard “Hello, girls” and turned to recognize Daniel Bomberry. Daniel had months earlier recruited us to Cal-State Long Beach when he’d met us at a California Indian Education Association meeting in Riverside. Now we knew someone!

Daniel took us into the Warden’s House and showed us a small attic room where we could leave our sleeping bags and stay. Then, he took us on a tour. As he showed us places, he told us names of people he knew. He took us through the cell block and the exercise yard, showed us where to eat and explained the efforts and ideas we were now a part of.

​Our time on Alcatraz Island was spent helping to clear and clean areas that would be useful as hoped-for education center/school for tribal people/kids of the occupiers. We took our meals sitting in the exercise yard while sharing food with the resident turkey, donated, but not killed for Thanksgiving. (I was not in residence long enough to know his fate.) The view of the city was breathtaking as was the cold weather and the wind over the water. I met many people whose names and actions continue as a part of history, some as friends.

Our part was brief; we left Alcatraz Island a week later to continue our contributions through gaining and promoting education for greater numbers of Indians and correcting the raging misconceptions about tribal people. Eventually, I told my own students that sometimes we must place ourselves, our lives, into desperate action to effect important change for all of us. That belief moved the Alcatraz occupiers to action then, and that spirit continues in American Indian people still. This was our adventure, Carol Whaley Miller and Elaine Bowen Dempsey. We were there.

Geneva Seaboy (Dakota/Chippewa)

In April 1969 I was 17 years old and felt a desire to explore outside the boundaries of my hometown of Sisseton, South Dakota. My mother flew me out to San Francisco, where my brother was living. I had my 18th birthday the next month. The relocation program gave me the opportunity, since I had two brothers in California already. My older brother Joseph Seaboy was already an established actor in Los Angeles.

There were powwows every weekend in the Bay Area. My family had always been powwow people. I met Gail Treppa (Pomo) at a powwow; she was a local person from up north and we started to hang out. I started to meet people through powwows and babysitting. I met Alan Miller and Gerald Sam and many more. Al and Gerald were students at San Francisco State. They were part of the planning process for the Occupation of Alcatraz Island, which happened that fall.

Gail Treppa and I went out to Alcatraz Island together. We had been buddies since I met her. We met at the No Name Bar on November 19, 1969. Most people came with sleeping bags and food and expected to stay at least overnight. The sailboat we were on was owned by a San Francisco State student who didn’t want any women or children on his boat, but Al and Gerald snuck us on. Gail and I hid in mattresses. He checked the boat, kicking the mattresses and we could feel his kicks, but we sat tight. We set sail and when the guys jumped up and hollered “clear” that’s when Gail and I jumped out. He hollered: “I said no women or children.” It was too late; we were on the deck smiling.

As we landed, the caretaker John came running out of his office, ringing a bell and hollering “Mayday, Mayday.” What could he do, one against 89 Indians? He welcomed us and showed us places to sleep. He told us he always liked Indians, but Big Bill said: “White people always say that when they are surrounded by Indians.” We got to the cell block and dispersed to different areas of Alcatraz Island to keep watch. Who could sleep?

It was scary but exciting—not knowing what was going to happen. Gail and I climbed down into the shrubbery on the south side of the cell block building. It was steep. We sat in the bushes and kept watch; we had a panoramic view from there.

By that time the Coast Guard had been alerted and here they came, circling the Island and shining spotlights all over. The spotlight came our way but they could not see us through our camouflage. For the next few days the Coast Guard kept circling the island, but people were still finding a way out there. The Coast Guard even blockades the landing dock. People were actually climbing up the south side of Alcatraz Island, which is just cliffs and a built-in ladder—dangerous.

The first few nights we all slept in the cells. There were still mattresses and bedding in them from when it was a prison. We started exploring the island and found living quarters. We formed a council, which strategized while most of us performed the jobs of cooking, cleaning, and housekeeping. They decided to call ourselves “Indians of All Tribes,” which I suggested.

At night we had campfires and round dances, meeting each other. Finally a General Services Administration representative came to visit and negotiate. We refused to leave, so the GSA lifted the blockade on Sunday afternoon. People came out daily, mostly just to stay for a day. They were transported by volunteer boat owners. The influx of donations of food, clothing, and supplies was huge. Some of the men got the old trucks running and hauled the supplies up to the top.

The news went worldwide and media people—reporters, photographers, and would be ones—came from all over the world. There was so much food we had the biggest, best Thanksgiving celebration ever the next week, November 27, 1969. Many people came and we had a huge powwow. People cooked lots of turkeys and we feasted in the recreation yard that day. That was my first week on Alcatraz Island.