History of Native American Activism on Alcatraz Island
Most people know of Alcatraz as a tourist attraction that used to be a federal prison. However there was a brief time in history after the federal prison closed down and before it was opened as a tourist attraction during which there was an incredibly important part of the history of Alcatraz that took place. It was during this time that Native American people occupied the island for social and political reasons that remain important to understand to this day. There were two separate occupations – one short and one long – both of which played a key role in Native American activism during the 1960’s.
The federal prison at Alcatraz closed down at a time when political tensions in the country were high. Social activism was beginning to take root on many levels. Prisons were being encouraged to enter into new models focusing on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Social inequities in incarceration related to race and economic status were starting to gain exposure. And general awareness of all types of social imbalance and inequity was the topic of the day, especially in liberal San Francisco. Native American activism was one portion of this part of the history of the United States and Alcatraz played a large role in this activism, both locally and throughout the nation.
First Takeover: Sioux
In 1964, the year after the federal prison was shut down, a group of Sioux Indians landed on Alcatraz, claiming rights to it under the Fort Laramie 1868 Sioux Treaty. This treaty allowed Native American people who were not living on reservations to claim any government land that had been taken and then abandoned. Alcatraz fell into this category so the Native Americans took it over. The goal of the takeover was to gain attention in the area for the plight of the Bay Area’s Native American people.
Another thing about which they were raising awareness was a recent unjust monetary offer made by the federal government to the Native American people for the land, which was taken over during the Gold Rush. In an attempt to resolve the problems of the past, the government was offering 47 cents per acre for the land that had been illegally taken. The Sioux takeover of Alcatraz pointed out that the Indian people would be happy to pay the government that going rate of 47 cents per acre, making the total they owed for the island less than $10. Their occupation of Alcatraz served to highlight this issue for people who were not aware of it.
During the brief few hours that they were on the island, the Native American people staked their claim to various parts of the land there. They officially wrote down their claims and prepared them to be sent to the Bureau of Land Management in Sacramento. However, it wasn’t long before they were asked to leave the island. Just about two hours after their arrival, they were met by the acting warden, Richard J. Willard, who demanded that they leave the island or be arrested for trespassing. The issue was discussed and it was determined that the Native American people did not want their actions to be seen as “police-baiting” so they agreed to leave peacefully. They remained for only four hours, but their imprint on the island was far from short-lived.
Tribes Coming Together
As part of the activism of the era, numerous tribal groups were setting aside their personal differences and coming together. The United Council was formed in the early 1960’s and was gaining members and power in the area. After the 1964 invasion of Alcatraz, the group began discussing the possibilities for pursuing legal action. They made plans to petition the United States government for the land under the original treaty. But the plans never materialized as other things were being worked on by the group. Then there were two major events that ultimately led to the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz.
First, there was discussion by the federal government to transfer the land over to a public citizen in a purchase by a Texas billionaire. This would mean that the treaty would no longer apply. Shortly following this announcement, there was an event that was of more importance to the Native American community. The date was October 10, 1969. The event was the burning down of the San Francisco Indian Center on Valencia Street The location had served the social needs of over 30,000 Native American locals. The need for a new center re-focused Native American attention on claiming Alcatraz as Indian land.
The Longer Takeover of Alcatraz
In 1969, six years after Alcatraz ceased to be a federal prison, the land was claimed by a Native American activist group who believed that they had rights to the island as Native American property. It took two attempts to make the takeover happen. The first happened in two parts on November 9th. During the daytime, a group gathered for the eyes of the media with the intention of landing on Alcatraz. Problems with the boat made it impossible to get all the way to Alcatraz, although the boat got close enough to the island that several Native Americans jumped into the water and tried to swim there. One, Joe Bill, made it. The group returned to San Francisco and tinkered with their plans. That night, with no media fanfare, a smaller group went out to the island. Fourteen of them landed on Alcatraz in that first takeover.
In the morning, the Indian occupation was announced to the media. This resulted in an extensive search of the island. The Native American people hid out in various locations all throughout Alcatraz, letting the officials continue to search for them. When the search had gone on for hours, they peacefully revealed themselves. They read their proclamation and explained what their plans were. They announced that the occupation marked the establishment of their squatters’ rights on the island and stated their intention to return. Then they voluntarily evacuated the island in the hopes that something would come of their efforts. Later that month, nearly 100 American Indians (primarily, but not entirely, college students), took control of the island once again. The group called themselves Indians of All Tribes to reflect the fact that a number of different groups had come together in this movement.
Why did the Native American people takeover Alcatraz? Well, for one thing, they needed a place to assemble since their building had been burned down. Alcatraz was the right choice for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it was originally Native American land that had been taken over by the American government. In their initial proclamation, Indians of All Tribes explained that they would gladly pay back the government the going rate (the aforementioned 47 cents per acre). They also sarcastically pointed out that the government should be happy for Alcatraz to be used as Native American land since it so closely resembled the reservations of the modern day. Similarities they pointed out included its lack of running water, transportation, health care and adequate education facilities.
But the Native American people intended for this occupation to be more than just a sort of awareness-raising scheme. It was also meant to serve the purpose of setting up the facilities so needed by the Indian community. They planned to erect a Center for Native American Studies, an American Indian Spiritual Center, an Indian Center of Ecology, A Great Indian Training School, and an American Indian Museum. Some of these goals would be met during the following year and a half when the island remained under the control of the Native American people. That’s right – the Native American people stayed there for over eighteen months!
Most people who came to the island stayed there for only a short time – a few days, a couple of weeks – but there was consistently a relatively large group of Native Americans on Alcatraz during the occupation. This was because of the effort that the Native American people had put in to spreading the word about their actions. They drew media attention to their cause and they enlisted the assistance of the national Indian community. Major leaders in the social movements of the time paid attention to what was happening here. And word spread that continued support of this group could encourage social change.
It was certainly an exciting time, and many of the initial goals of the Proclamation (such as the opening of an Indian school) came to fruition. But all was not well on the island. There were power struggles between the people living on Alcatraz and their Indian counterparts back on the mainland. And there were power struggles among different tribal groups on the island. Drugs and alcohol fueled these problems despite the leadership’s best attempts to keep these items off of the island. So, although life there was exciting, it was also dramatic.
And the problems weren’t just amongst the Native American people but also between them and the federal government. In light of the explosive political nature of the times, the government was slow and methodical in its treatment of the situation. Initially, they attempted to block supplies to the island but this plan was called off after 3 days because of the sheer number of boats that ran the blockades. Then they proceeded to spend one month in negotiations with the group, offering alternatives to no avail. Finally, in May 1970, they began to crack down. This started with removing the water barge that supplied fresh water to Alcatraz. They also withdrew their own caretakers from the island and then cut off all electricity.
The End of Native American Occupation on Alcatraz
The Native Americans refused to succumb to the pressure. But, in June 1970, two devastating fires simultaneously broke out on the island. They destroyed the Warden’s house and the officer’s club and did damage to the historic lighthouse. To this day, the cause of the fire is unknown. At the time, the government claimed that the Indians had purposely set the fires and the Indians claimed that the government had sent in saboteurs to cause the blaze. This was just the beginning of the problems that the occupants of Alcatraz would have with federal government.
Despite these problems, the federal government maintained a slow approach to dealing with the “problem” at Alcatraz. The Native American people continued occupation of the island for another year. On June 11, 1971, the federal government had their chance to take the island back and they did so. A large group of the occupants had traveled to the city for the day to visit with family and take care of mainland chores. This left only 15 Indians on the island that day. Federal marshals moved in under orders to regain control of Alcatraz Island. The Native American activists who still remained there were arrested and charged with destruction of United States Property. There was no blood shed in the takeover but tears stuck to the soil as the Native American people were led away from the island. Shortly after this the island became the big tourist attraction that it is today but you can still see some of the signs of Native American occupation if you take the tour there.
NOTE: This article was written based on some of the information obtained when writing my book, Ghosts of Alcatraz.
- Alcatraz is Not an Island.Indian Activism | PBS
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