During the late 1960s, the small, isolated, rocky island in San Francisco Bay known as Alcatraz had been largely ignored by the public. Home to the notorious federal prison from 1934 until 1963, Alcatraz -- nicknamed "The Rock"-- was still a few years away from being named a National Park and becoming a major tourist attraction in the Bay Area. But on November 20, 1969, the island became the unlikely stage for a landmark event in the Native American rights movement. On that date, 89 Indians -- mostly students from colleges and universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles -- announced they were taking over the island, setting in motion what would become the longest occupation of a federal facility by Native Americans to date.
Although it was essentially a publicity stunt to spotlight issues concerning Native Americans, the occupation of Alcatraz emerged as a defining event in Indian-U.S. relations and as a trailblazing protest that would soon inspire an upsurge in activism across the country.
Out of Patience
During the 1940s and '50s, Native American activism stressed negotiation, compromise and a preference for legal remedies. In addition, protests and resistance against the U.S. government were generally organized and executed by specific tribes and nations and focused on a specific issue, such as fishing rights and other treaty rights violations. The confrontational political climate of the 1960s, however, ushered in a new era of Native American activism led by a band of younger, more radical leaders -- exemplified by the American Indian Movement (AIM), a militant group formed in 1968.
Spurning what they viewed as the more conciliatory approach of some of their elders, these activists denounced the federal government not only for failing to fulfill the promises of its treaties and agreements but also for its ongoing arrogant and condescending manner toward Native people. The 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island inspired Native Americans across the country to raise their voices for self-determination, autonomy, economic survival and respect for Native culture.
The 1969 occupation was not the first attempt at seizing "the Rock." In 1964, four Sioux Indians claimed the island, citing an 1868 treaty allowing Indians from the reservation to take any "unoccupied land." That occupation lasted only four hours, but the unmet demands made by the Sioux -- the establishment of an Indian university and the right to use the island as a Native American cultural center among others-- greatly influenced the group that took Alcatraz five years later.
"We Hold the Rock!"
On November 20, 1969, eighty-nine Native Americans, led by activist Richard Oakes, seized control of Alcatraz. To announce their action to the world, the dissidents issued the Alcatraz Proclamation. Because the occupying force comprised a diverse Native population -- Sioux, Blackfoot, Apache, Navajo, Cheyenne and Iroquois were all represented -- the document was signed by "Indians of all Tribes."
"In the name of all Indians ... we reclaim this island for our Indian nations," the proclamation read. "We feel this claim is just and proper, and that the land should rightfully be granted to us for as long as the rivers run and the sun shall shine. We hold the Rock!"
In exchange for the island, the inhabitants offered "$24 in glass beads and red cloth," which they said was a precedent set by the white man's purchase of "a similar island" three centuries earlier. While the activists noted that $24 for the 16 acres on Alcatraz was more than what Whites paid for Manhattan Island, they acknowledged that "land values have risen over the years."
Media coverage and public reaction to the capture were initially sympathetic, and several celebrities, including Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando and Dick Gregory, visited the island to offer support. The inhabitants constructed tipis, and hand-painted slogans -- "You Are on Indian Land," "Red Power," and "Human Rights, Free the Indians" -- adorned the walls of the island's structures.
Preferring not to inflame the situation, the federal government followed a "hands-off" policy regarding the occupation. Although they negotiated with the leaders, authorities hoped that the dissidents would tire and elect to end the occupation voluntarily. Indeed, over the next 12 months, many of the activists would leave the island as bickering between leaders increased and public interest dwindled. By 1971, the occupying force on Alcatraz was reduced to a mere handful of men, women and children. In June 1971, on orders from President Richard Nixon to bring the 19-month occupation to an end, federal marshals escorted the last group of Native Americans off the island.
The legacy of the Alcatraz occupation was immediate and long-lasting. In subsequent months, Native Americans would occupy federal facilities in Colorado, Mt. Rushmore and Ellis Island. In 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan converged on Washington, D.C., to demand from Congress changes in how Native peoples were treated. The following year, AIM activists occupied the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. The origins of this era of Indian activism, a milestone in the Native American movement, can be traced back to November 1969.
"The most lasting result of Alcatraz," said Native American activist Adam Fortunate Eagle, "may have been the growth of Indian pride throughout the country. ... Everywhere American Indians rejoiced."