Alcatraz 50: 'Keep off. Indian property.'

The Associated Press

Indian Country Today is republishing reports from The Associated Press as part of the occupation’s 50th anniversary

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Nov. 20, 1969, dozens of Native Americans took over Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay to demand the federal government recognize long-standing agreements with tribes and turn over the deed to the island.

They arrived under the cover of night and vowed to peacefully protest federal policies that sought to eliminate tribes’ culture and language, and strip them of their land.

The U.S. government had declared Alcatraz, the site of a former maximum-security prison, surplus property several years earlier. Native Americans used an 1868 treaty between the U.S. and the Sioux to stake a claim to the land.

Although the 19-month occupation ended with occupiers being forcibly removed, it served as a watershed moment in Native American activism.

Tribes did not get a museum, school and cultural center on the island like they wanted. But the occupation galvanized activists, raised awareness of social conditions on reservations and spurred a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.

“It created a spark,” said historian Kent Blansett, who has written about Alcatraz. “We have a long way to go in this country before we get to the point of equality for indigenous people.”

The Associated Press is republishing reports from Nov. 21, 1969, to June 13, 1971, as part of its coverage of the occupation’s 50 anniversary.


SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 23 — An invasion of Alcatraz Island by about 130 Indians demanding federal turnover of the former prison fortress for a cultural center went into a third day Saturday as talks continued with government officials.

Occupation of the 21-acre “rock” in San Francisco Bay remained peaceful, but there was a collision offshore.

A motorized Chinese junk taking in provisions struck a Coast Guard patrol boat carrying two U.S. marshals to the island.

The 40-foot government boat received minor damage. The Coast Guard declined to comment on whether the ramming was accidental or intentional, but cited the junk operator, Peter L. W. Jones, for “reckless or negligent operation of a motorboat.”

In San Francisco, Asst. U.S. Attorney Richard Urdan said federal officials had agreed to continue talks with the Indians, and there were no plans for “arrest or eviction.”

Occupation of the abandoned federal prison began early Thursday with Indian leader Richard Oakes. 26, a Mohawk, claiming the island under terms of an 1868 treaty with the Sioux that permitted Indians to have any unoccupied federal land. The Indians reworded a huge government sign to read: “Keep off. Indian property.”

It was the second Indian occupation of Alcatraz in two weeks.

On Nov. 9, a party of 18 youths spent the night, jokingly offering to buy the island for $24 in beads and cloth_ the price legend says the white man paid to Indians for Manhattan Island 300 years ago.

The federal government abandoned Alcatraz Prison in 1963, and the General Services Administration was placed in charge of its disposal.


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