Occupation of Alcatraz
The Occupation of Alcatraz was an occupation of Alcatraz Island by 89 American Indians who called themselves Indians of All Tribes (IOAT). According to the IOAT, under the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Lakota, all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land was returned to the Native people from whom it was taken. Since Alcatraz penitentiary had been closed on March 21, 1963, and the island had been declared surplus federal property in 1964, a number of Red Power activists felt the island qualified for a reclamation.
The Alcatraz Occupation lasted for fourteen months, from November 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971, and was forcibly ended by the U.S. government. The Occupation of Alcatraz had a direct effect on federal Indian policy and, with its visible results, established a precedent for Indian activism.
According to the IOAT, under the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Lakota, all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land was returned to the Native people from whom it was stolen. Since Alcatraz penitentiary had been closed on March 21, 1963, and the island had been declared surplus federal property in 1964, a number of Red Power activists felt the island qualified for a reclamation.
On March 8, 1964, a small group of Sioux demonstrated by occupying the island for four hours. The entire party consisted of about 40 people, including photographers, reporters and Elliot Leighton, the lawyer representing those claiming land stakes. According to Adam Fortunate Eagle, this demonstration was an extension of already prevalent Bay Area street theater used to raise awareness. The Sioux activists were led by Richard McKenzie, Mark Martinez, Garfield Spotted Elk, Virgil Standing-Elk, Walter Means, and Allen Cottier. Cottier acted as spokesman for the demonstration, stating that it was “peaceful and in accordance with Sioux treaty rights.” The protesters were publicly offering the federal government the same amount for the land that the government had initially offered them; at 47 cents per acre, this amounted to $9.40 for the entire rocky island, or $5.64 for the twelve usable acres. Cottier also stated that the federal government would be allowed to maintain use of the Coast Guard lighthouse located on the island. The protesters left under threat that they would be charged with felony. This incident resulted in increased media attention for indigenous peoples' protests across the Bay Area.
The United Council of the Bay Area Indian community initially considered writing a proposal and filing an application for the use of Alcatraz by Sioux people under the conditions of their treaty. Plans were drawn up for using the buildings on Alcatraz as a cultural center. Conversations about handing Alcatraz over to developers for commercial development created concern about the future availability of the island. A desire for more immediate action to claim space for the local Indian community was finally spurred by the loss of the San Francisco Indian Center to fire on October 10, 1969. Strategies for obtaining Alcatraz for use by the local Indian community shifted from formal applications to more immediate takeover.
In 1969, Adam Fortunate Eagle planned a symbolic occupation for November 9. University student leaders Mohawk Richard Oakes and Shoshone Bannock LaNada Means, head of the Native American Student Organization at the University of California, Berkeley, with a larger group of student activists joined Fortunate Eagle. A group of five boats was organized to take approximately 75 indigenous peoples over to the island, but none of the boats showed up. Adam Fortunate Eagle convinced Ronald Craig, the owner of the Monte Cristo, a three-masted yacht, to pass by the island when their own boats did not arrive. Oakes, Jim Vaughn (Cherokee), Joe Bill (Eskimo), Ross Harden (Ho-Chunk) and Jerry Hatch jumped overboard, swam to shore, and claimed the island by right of discovery. The Coast Guard quickly removed the men, but later that day, a larger group made their way to the island again, and fourteen stayed overnight. The following day, Oakes delivered a proclamation, written by Fortunate Eagle, to the General Services Administration (GSA) which claimed the island by right of discovery, after which the group left the island.
Though recently many people have claimed that the American Indian Movement was somehow involved in the Takeover, AIM had nothing to do with the planning and execution of the Occupation, though they did send a delegation to Alcatraz in the early months in order to find out how the operation was accomplished and how things were progressing.
In the early morning hours of November 20, 1969, 89 American Indians, including over 30 women, students, married couples and six children, set out to occupy Alcatraz Island. A partially successful Coast Guard blockade prevented most of them from landing, but fourteen protesters landed on the island to begin their occupation. At the height of the occupation there were 400 people. Native and non-native people brought food and other necessary items to the people on the island. The occupation lasted about 19 months but ended peacefully. An employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Doris Purdy, who was also an amateur photographer, accompanied a group who went on November 29, stayed the night and made a movie, which is available on YouTube
The protesters, predominately students, drew inspiration and tactics from contemporary civil rights demonstrations, some of which they had themselves organized. The original fourteen students who occupied the Island were LaNada Means War Jack, Richard Oakes, Joe Bill, David Leach, John Whitefox, Ross Harden, Jim Vaughn, Linda Arayando, Bernell Blindman, Kay Many Horse, John Virgil, John Martell, Fred Shelton, and Rick Evening. Jerry Hatch and Al Miller, both present at the initial landing but unable to leave the boat in the confusion after the Coast Guard showed up, quickly turned up in a private boat. The first landing party was joined later by many others in the following days, including Joe Morris (a key player later as a representative of the Longshoreman's Union, which threatened to close both ports if the Occupiers were removed), and the man who would soon become "the Voice of Alcatraz," John Trudell.
Although she would not receive the same recognition from mainstream media as Trudell and Oakes would, LaNada Means, who was one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave, organized written statements and speeches that outlined the purpose of the occupation. To the media and to the federal government, Means made it clear that the occupiers wanted complete Indian control over the island, under the Treaty of Fort Laramie, for the purpose of building a cultural center that included Native American Studies, an American Indian spiritual center, an ecology center, and an American Indian Museum. According to Means’ grant proposal, the center would include full-time Indian consultants, Indian teachers, Indian librarians, and an Indian staff leading people around the center in order to tell the story of Indians of All Tribes. The occupiers specifically cited their treatment under the Indian termination policy and they accused the U.S. government of breaking numerous Indian treaties.
Richard Oakes sent a message to the San Francisco Department of the Interior:
|“||We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government – to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit's land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian. We do not fear your threat to charge us with crimes on our land. We and all other oppressed peoples would welcome spectacle of proof before the world of your title by genocide. Nevertheless, we seek peace.||”|
On Thanksgiving Day, hundreds of supporters made their way to Alcatraz to celebrate the Occupation. In December, one of the occupiers, Isani Sioux John Trudell, began making daily radio broadcasts from the island, and in January 1970, occupiers began publishing a newsletter. Joseph Morris, a Blackfoot member of the local longshoreman's union, rented space on Pier 40 to facilitate the transportation of supplies and people to the island.
Cleo Waterman (Seneca Nation) was president of the American Indian Center during the takeover. As an elder, she chose to stay behind and work on logistics to support the occupiers. She worked closely with Grace Thorpe and the singer Kay Starr to bring attention to the occupation and its purpose.
Grace Thorpe, daughter of Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), was one of the occupiers and helped convince celebrities like Jane Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando, Jonathan Winters, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Dick Gregory, to visit the island and show their support. Not only did Thorpe bring both national and international attention to the occupation, she also provided supplies necessary to keep the occupation alive. Thorpe gave a generator, water barge and an ambulance service to the island. Rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival supported the Occupation with a $15,000 donation that was used to buy a boat, named the Clearwater, for reliable transport to Alcatraz. As a child, the actor Benjamin Bratt was in the occupation with his mother and his siblings.
Collapse and removal
On January 3, 1970, Yvonne Oakes, 13-year-old daughter of Annie and stepdaughter to Richard, fell to her death, prompting the Oakes family to leave the island, saying they just didn't have the heart for it anymore. Some of the original occupiers left to return to school, and some of the new occupiers had drug addictions. Some non-aboriginal members of San Francisco's drug and hippie scene also moved to the island, until non-Indians were prohibited from staying overnight.
After Oakes left, LaNada Means, John Trudell and Stella Leach were challenged with rebuilding the occupations’ worsening reputation. Means, having been in a family that was always active in tribal politics, was comfortable briefing reporters on how reservations operated or directing occupiers on island clean up. So when Bob Robertson, a Republican working for the National Council on Indian Opportunity, arrived on the island in 1970, just a week after Yvonne Oakes’ passing, Means took the lead in trying to negotiate the grant for the cultural center. Along with Means, Robertson originally met with a group of occupiers to discuss safety and negotiations regarding the occupation. He was surprised that only ten men were present while forty American Indian women were present and active in discussion. When the initial meeting ended, Means had invited Robertson to a private dinner between herself and three lawyers to propose a $500,000 grant to renovate the island. Robertson, however, refused and would continue to refuse the occupiers’ proposals until finally, in May 1970 the federal government began to transfer Alcatraz to the Department of the Interior and the National Park System.
LaNada Means attempted to find different routes to support Indians of All Tribes and those still on Alcatraz. Means believed that if she could hire a high-profile attorney to represent their claim for the Treaty of Fort Laramie, IAT would win their case. However, as she traveled further and further away from the island to find supporters, rumors began that she was offered a screen test with a movie producer, therefore becoming an opportunist. When she returned she had found that Trudell and the occupation’s attorney’s disagreed with her approach. Ultimately, the remaining occupiers followed Trudell.
By late May, the government had cut off all electrical power and all telephone service to the island. In June, a fire of disputed origin destroyed numerous buildings on the island. Left without power, fresh water, and in the face of diminishing public support and sympathy, the number of occupiers began to dwindle. On June 11, 1971, a large force of government officers removed the remaining 15 people from the island.
Though fraught with controversy and forcibly ended, the Occupation is hailed by many as a success for having attained international attention for the situation of native peoples in the United States, and for sparking more than 200 instances of civil disobedience among Native Americans.
The Occupation of Alcatraz had a direct effect on federal Indian policy and, with its visible results, established a precedent for Indian activism.
Robert Robertson, director of the National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO), was sent to negotiate with the protesters. His offer to build a park on the island for Indian use was rejected, as the IAT were determined to possess the entire island, and hoped to build a cultural center there. While the Nixon administration did not accede to the demands of the protesters, it was aware of the delicate nature of the situation, and so could not forcibly remove them. Spurred in part by Spiro Agnew’s support for Native American rights, federal policy began to progress away from termination and toward Indian autonomy. In Nixon’s July 8, 1970, Indian message, he decried termination, proclaiming, “self-determination among Indian people can and must be encouraged without the threat of eventual termination.” While this was a step toward substantial reform, the administration was hindered by its bureaucratic mentality, unable to change its methodical approach of dealing with Indian rights. Nixon’s attitude toward Indian affairs soured with the November 2, 1972, occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Nixon reputedly felt betrayed, and claimed that “he was through doing things to help Indians.”
Much of the Indian rights activism of the period can be traced to the Occupation of Alcatraz. The Trail of Broken Treaties, the BIA occupation, the Wounded Knee incident, and the Longest Walk all have their roots in the occupation. The American Indian Movement noted from their visit to the occupation that the demonstration garnered national attention, while those involved faced no punitive action. When AIM members seized the Mayflower II on Thanksgiving, 1970, the Occupation of Alcatraz was noted as “the symbol of a newly awakened desire among Indians for unity and authority in a white world.”
Although the Alcatraz occupation inspired many other Pan-Indian movements to occur, it also showed how gender played a part in Indian activism. Mainstream media had an obsession with documenting the stereotype of the male Indian warrior and as such it was only the men that were highlighted as being the leaders and creators of movements. Women such as LaNada Means, Stella Leach and the other women at Alcatraz receive little attention for contributing to the movement. As a result, the many women who had initiated movements such as Wounded Knee Incident would never be as well known as Russell Means and other AIM leaders, even though, in the case of Wounded Knee, of the 350 occupiers, just 100 were men. Quoted in John William Sayer’s Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials, John Trudell admitted, in reflection, “We got lost in our manhood."
Some 50 of the Alcatraz occupiers traveled to the East Bay and began an occupation of an abandoned and dilapidated Nike Missile installation located in the hills behind the community of Kensington in June 1971. This occupation was ended after three days by a combined force of Richmond Police and regular US Army troops from the Presidio of San Francisco. Moreover, the Alcatraz Occupation greatly influenced the American government's decision to end its Indian termination policy and to pass the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.
The Alcatraz Occupation led to an annual celebration of the rights of indigenous people, Unthanksgiving day, welcome all visitors to a dawn ceremony under permits by the National Park Service.
In March 1970, a Seattle-based group called the United Indians of All Tribes (re-)occupied Fort Lawton, demanding the return of Indigenous lands that were about to be declared surplus. The organization and their action was expressly modelled on the Indians of All Tribes and the occupation of Alcatraz. Bernie Whitebear, one of those involved, stated that "We saw what could be achieved there and if it had not been for their determined effort on Alcatraz, there would have been no movement here. We would like to think that Alcatraz lives on in part through Ft. Lawton."
- Kelly, Casey Ryan (2014). "Détournement, Decolonization, and the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969–1971)". Rhetoric Society Quarterly. 44 (2): 168. doi:10.1080/02773945.2014.888464.
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- Paul Chaar Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, ( New York: The New Press, 1996), 72.
- Paul Chaar Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, ( New York: The New Press, 1996), 73.
- Paul Chaar Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, ( New York: The New Press, 1996), 74.
- LaNada Boyer, “Reflections of Alcatraz,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 18 (1994): 87.
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- Donna Hightower Langston, “American Indian Women’s Activism in the 1960s and 1970s,” Hypatia 18, 2: 2003, 128.
- Donna Hightower Langston, “American Indian Women’s Activism in the 1960s and 1970s,” Hypatia 18, 2: 2003, 127.
- John William Sayer, Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 224.
- Berkeley Gazette, June 15–18, 1971
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