Alcatraz 50: Native Americans want to take over the island

In this photo taken Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, the words "Indian Land" are painted on a building on Alcatraz Island with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background in San Francisco. The week of Nov. 18, 2019, marks 50 years since the beginning of a months-long Native American occupation at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The demonstration by dozens of tribal members had lasting effects for tribes, raising awareness of life on and off reservations, galvanizing activists and spurring a shift in federal policy toward self-determination. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

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 50th anniversary.

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SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 21, — Seventy-eight Indians from about 30 tribes have invaded Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, demanding the federal government turn it over to them under provisions of an 1868 treaty.

The tribesmen crept ashore from boats Wednesday night and vowed Thursday that most would remain until the federal government rules formally on their demands.

Indian leader Richard Oakes, 26, claimed that an 1868 treaty with the Sioux provides that any unused federal land reverts automatically to Indians.

The federal government abandoned its prison on the 21-acre island in 1963, and the property has been declared surplus. The General Services Administration is in charge of disposal.

GSA Regional Administrator Thomas Hannon visited Alcatraz Thursday and began “peaceable” talks with the Indians.

Oakes said the invaders want to set up a museum, a school and an Indian center.

Oakes and six other leaders accompanied Hannon to the mainland Thursday night for continued talks. The rest remained behind to spend a second night in pitched tents. 

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Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the occupation of Alcatraz.

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