When Native American activists took control of Alcatraz for 18 months

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

On March 8, 1964, a small group of Sioux made landfall on Alcatraz Island, which had been abandoned as a prison the previous year. They invoked the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie in reclaiming the surplus federal property as Native land, and spent a few hours singing and drumming before being removed by federal marshals.

That occupation was small and brief, but was noticed by Native Americans across the country who were suffering under federal policies of relocation and termination, by which the government was encouraging Native Americans to leave reservations for cities and seeking to end federal recognition of tribal sovereignty.

As various proposals were floated in San Francisco about what should be done with the disused island prison, an idea took hold among local Native groups — occupy the island and demand it be turned over and transformed into a Native American cultural center.

On November 9, 1969, dozens of Native Americans of numerous tribes gathered at Pier 39 and read a proclamation claiming Alcatraz by right of discovery and offering to buy it for $24 in beads and cloth.

They then took a symbolic sailboat cruise around the island. Several of the passengers dove overboard and attempted to swim to the island. One jumper made it, but the others were swept away by the tide and had to be rescued.

Later that night, 14 activists convinced local fishermen to take them to the island, where they spent the night.

These were just trial runs for the true occupation, which began on Nov. 20 when nearly 80 Native Americans came ashore in the middle of the night.

33 PHOTOS
The Native American occupation of Alcatraz: 1969-1971
See Gallery
The Native American occupation of Alcatraz: 1969-1971
John Trudell, a Sioux Indian, stands next to a teepee on one end of Alcatraz Island in San Francisc, Calif., in November 1969. Native Americans still control the former prison after taking over the island. (AP Photo
Adam Nordwall, 40, a Chippewa Indian, stands at the rail of the three-masted clipper Monte Cristo as it sails past Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, Nov. 9, 1969. Nordwall led a group of Indians in a proposal to purchase the Island for $24 in beads and cloth and suggested it be made into an Indian center. Nordwall hopes to make the proposal to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and possibly to President Nixon. Disposition of the island has been under discussion. (AP Photo)
Part of a band of Native Americans look over the main cell block of Alcatraz in San Francisco, Nov. 19, 1969 after occupying the island for the second time in two weeks. The Indians say they want the island for a new center to replace a San Francisco building destroyed by fire recently. The general service administration asked the Indians to leave but threatened no immediate action. (AP Photo/Robert Klein)
(Original Caption) Indian girl, one of 78 who invaded Alcataz Island for the second time within two weeks, paints sign reading 'Indian American Land' on wall of building at the former Federal prison site. The Indians propose 'profitable negotiation' with the Federal government on taking over 'The Rock' for an American Indian cultural center.
An assortment of Native Americans, part of the 200 currently occupying the former prison island of Alcatraz in San Francisco, stand under signs recently painted at dockside, Nov. 25, 1969. The word âStatesâ has been changed to âIndianâ in original sign. Man at right is a Navajo. The Indians are demanding a visit by Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel and a pow-wow with him over possession of the surplus mid-bay property. (AP Photo)
U.S. Coast Guard picket beat wards off from Alcatraz Island a small craft with sign carrying supporters of the Indian 'invasion' of Alcatraz. Federal officials withdraw a Sunday afternoon deadline for the surrender of the island by the Indians, who had vowed to hide from marshals in the 12-acre maze of old buildings and caves. About 120 are on the Island.
American Indians play ball games outside the prison wall on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco during their occupation of the island in this Nov. 26, 1969 photo. The sign reading "INDIANS WELCOME," is one of the few physical reminders that 30 years ago a group of American Indians clung to the barren, bony slopes of Alcatraz for 19 months, winning the attention of the world and igniting a passion for civil rights. (AP Photo)
(Original Caption) Tourists use pay telescopes at Fisherman's Wharf to get a look at Alcatraz Island, former Federal penitentiary. The island was recently occupied by young American Indian demonstrators who want the site to become an American Indian cultural and educational center.
John Hart (right, center with paper in hand) tells Richard Oakes (hand on chin) about various cooking areas on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay that Indians led by Oakes can use to cook Thanksgiving dinner, Nov. 26, 1969. This group is meeting with Hart in what was once the exercising yard of Alcatraz Prison. (AP Photo/Robert W. Klein)
Provisions for Indians on Alcatraz are becoming more plentiful day by day and arrangements to sort and store the foodstuffs are underway in San Francisco, Nov. 27, 1969. What once was the prison mess hall is now being used to store supplies. A special Thanksgiving Day feast was to be provided by well wishing main landers. (AP Photo/Robert W. Klein)
(Original Caption) The Indian invaders of Alcatraz feasted on Thanksgiving turkey and the trimmings 11/27 inside the barbed wire topped walls of the former prison's recreation area. A young brave from Nogales, New Mexico is in the foreground getting his share of the Thanksgiving fare. A San Francisco restaurant prepared the feast and Sausalito yachtsmen delivered it to the Indians.
Two Indian youngsters find a warm sunny spot to play with dolls as their parents and an estimated 200 others set up housekeeping on Alcatraz in San Francisco, Nov. 27, 1969, site of former federal prison, which they claim under an old treaty. Entrance to the main cell block of the prison is seen in the background. A hand printed sign reading "This land is my land" hangs over the door. (AP Photo/Robert W. Klein)
New group of Native American arrivals on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco walk across docking area with handfuls of possessions, Dec. 2, 1969. They may be replacements for some who have left or an addition to the slowly growing numbers on the mid-bay site. A visit yesterday by U.S. Attorney General Cecil Poole brought no change in the attitude of the invaders, which is, âWe won't move.â (AP Photo/Robert Klein)
FILE - In this Dec. 1, 1969, file photo, John Trudell poses for a photo on steps leading to prison atop Alcatraz in San Francisco. Trudell, a poet and actor who spoke for American Indian protesters during the 1969 Alcatraz Island occupation and later headed the American Indian Movement, has died at age 69. A trustee of Trudell's estate, Cree Miller, says he died of cancer on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at his home in Santa Clara County in Northern California. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - This Dec. 1, 1969 file photo shows John Trudell on Alcatraz Island off San Francisco. Trudell, a poet and actor who spoke for American Indian protesters during the 1969 Alcatraz Island occupation and later headed the American Indian Movement, has died at age 69. A trustee of Trudell's estate, Cree Miller, says he died of cancer on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at his home in Santa Clara County in Northern California. (AP Photo, File)
Richard Oakes, left, Indian spokesman, meets with Cecil Poole, right, U.S. Attorney as the latter arrived on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, Dec. 1, 1969 to urge the Indians to evacuate the former federal prison they have occupied for more than a week. Also among the greeters were, left to right, John Hart, island caretaker, and Dennis Turner, tribal leader. After meeting with the federal officials the Indians said they would not leave the island. (AP Photo/Robert W. Klein)
General views on Alcatraz with Indians lolling in exercise yard, looking over parapet with Indian signs on water tower girl seated in cell in the main cell block on December 1 1969. (AP Photo)
General views on Alcatraz with Indians lolling in exercise yard, looking over parapet with Indian signs on water tower girl seated in cell in the main cell block Jan. 12, 1969. (AP Photo)
(Original Caption) American Indian leaders huddled on rain-swept Alcatraz in a pre-Christmas summit meeting to map strategy on their occupation of the historic island here 12/24. Shown at press conference telling newsmen of the high echelon meet are L-R: Richard Oakes, Earl Livermore and Al Miller.
Native American leader Bob Satiacum of Tacoma, Washington presents a colorful protest appearance at a Native American demonstration at the federal courthouse in Seattle, Washington on March 16, 1970. Native Americans marched to back up demands that they be given Ft. Lawton in Seattle for a cultural and educational center. Native American at left took part in the demonstrations at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. (AP Photo/Barry Sweet)
Richard Oakes, one of the Indian leaders, with small child in Alcatraz Nov. 17, 1970. (AP Photo/Sal Veder)
A man stands outside a tepee set up on Alcatraz during the American Indian Movement's takeover of the federal penitentiary. Behind him, the Golden Gate Bridge spans the outlet of San Francisco Bay.
Indians on Alcatraz, California March 1970. (AP Photo/Dick Drew)
Indians on Alcatraz, California in March 1970. (AP Photo/Dick Drew)
A Native American man stands on the roof of a prison complex building during the siege of Alcatraz Island by a group of Native Americans, San Francisco, California, 1970. The Native Americans occupied the island, which at that time was out of service as a Federal Prison, for a number of months. The Native Americans believed the land was rightfully theirs in accordance with a treaty signed by Abraham Lincoln granting them the right to reclaim any land that was originally theirs but has been abandoned by the U.S. government. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Fear Forgets (right) leads other Sioux in 'Liberation Day' ceremonies on Alcatraz Island. The Native Americans are occupying the island, claiming the government must turn it over to them.
A Native American man on crutches takes a picture during a takeover of Alcatraz Island by a group of Native Americans, San Francisco, California, June 1970. The Native Americans occupied the island, which at that time was out of service as a federal prison, for a number of months. The Native Americans believed the land was rightfully theirs in accordance with a treaty signed by Abraham Lincoln granting them the right to reclaim any land that was originally theirs but has been abandoned by the U.S. government. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Indians on Alcatraz, California March 1970. (AP Photo/Dick Drew)
The empty Alcatraz Island that was once a prison in California, shown June 13, 1971. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
U.S. Coast Guard Captain Raymond G. Park, 12th Coast Guard District Engineering Officer, stands at the base of the lighthouse on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, June 13, 1971 and talks to newsmen about the restoration of the beacon and foghorn systems. He estimated the cost up to $90,000 and take six to eight months. The structure was gutted by fire in May 1970. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Guard John Gagan and his dog, Whiskey, patrol Alcatraz where the wrecking ball is bringing down eight buildings on the lower portion of the island, July 23, 1971 in San Francisco. To be razed are stucco cottages and apartments that housed island's personnel and gutted shell of the warden's house. Indian occupation of 19 months ended six weeks ago when federal marshals seized the former prison ground. (AP Photo/Robert W. Klein)
Richard Oakes, one of the Indian leaders in Alcatraz Nov. 17, 1970. (AP Photo/Sal Veder)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

Composed of members of more than 20 tribes from across the continent, the occupiers called themselves Indians of All Tribes.

One of the most prominent of the organizers was Richard Oakes, a well-spoken and charismatic Mohawk from New York. He had assembled Native Americans from around the Bay Area, as well as dozens of Indigenous students from UCLA. As soon as they made landfall, the occupiers set up an elected council and went to work organizing the day-to-day running of the island, assigning jobs and making decisions by unanimous consent.

They released a list of demands, and invited the federal government to join them in formal negotiations.

Initially, the government demanded that the occupiers leave, and set up a Coast Guard blockade to prevent supplies from reaching them. The government later switched to a strategy of non-interference, hoping that by waiting long enough the occupation would collapse on its own.

The occupation was widely and excitedly covered by the media, and generated broad popular interest in the grievances the occupiers were expressing — broken treaties, broken promises and the erasure of their culture. Demonstrations and occupations popped up around the country in solidarity.

Celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda visited the occupied island, and rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival donated a boat to the cause.

The island reached its highest population on Nov. 27, 1969, when some 400 Native Americans gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving.

In January 1970, the occupation was struck by tragedy when Richard Oakes' 13-year-old stepdaughter Yvonne fell from a third-story stairwell and died.

Grief-stricken, Oakes soon left Alcatraz, robbing the occupation of its de facto figurehead and leader.

After Oakes' departure, leadership struggles intensified as various factions tried to push forward their agendas and visions for an autonomous society.

Many of the earlier occupiers left to return to school, and many of the new occupiers were more preoccupied with feeding their drug addictions than attaining the original aim of the occupation. Non-Indigenous hippies and drug users began showing up, but were eventually barred from staying overnight.

In secret negotiations, the federal government, impatient to have the island cleared out, offered Fort Mason in San Francisco as an alternative site for a Native American cultural center.

The occupiers refused, and the government decided to apply more pressure.

Electricity and telephone service were cut off, followed by water.

Related: The history of Alcatraz:

36 PHOTOS
History of Alcatraz
See Gallery
History of Alcatraz
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1900: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, CA (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
View along a cell block in Alcatraz Penitentiary, San Francisco, California, March 20, 1911. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
A police mug shot of Canadian-born Gangster Alvin 'Creepy' Karpis (1907 - 1979), circa 1930. Best known for his alliance with the Barker gang in the U.S. in the early 1930s, Karpis was the last so-called 'Public Enemy' to be arrested and spent longer (25 years) in prison on Alcatraz Island than any other inmate there. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
circa 1933: A photograph of Jewish-American gangster Irving Wexler, aka Waxey Gordon, who was convicted of income tax evasion in 1933. He was released, but later convicted of selling narcotics and sent to Alcatraz, where he died in 1952. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
View dated 1930's of the Alcatraz island and penitentiary, in the San Francisco Bay. From the mid 1930's until the mid 1960's, Alcatraz ('the Rock') was America's premier maximum-security prison, the final stop for the nation's most incorrigible inmates, including Al Capone. (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Black smoke rises from a smoke stack of the facilities at Alcatraz island, also known as "The Rock," in the San Francisco Bay, Calif., on October 12, 1933. The island, which has a long history as a military prison, was chosen by the U.S. attorney general to become the new federal penitentiary for dangerous criminals. Seen in the background are the hills of Angel Island. (AP Photo)
Three armored railroad cars arrive on a car ferry at the United States Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, Calif., on August 22, 1934. Under the watchful eyes of guards carrying rifles, the prisoners, among them former Chicago gang leader Al Capone, leave the coaches for transfer to the cell house. (AP Photo)
This is an aerial view of Alcatraz Island, which houses Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay, shown 1939. (AP Photo/RJF)
This is Alcatraz Island prison, seen from the east, shown 1945. (AP Photo/Jack Rice)
Guard towers on Alcatraz prison overlook the recreation yard and San Francisco Bay, Ca., 1956, the last time photgraphers were permitted on the island. (AP Photo)
The main cell block where three cell tiers fill the huge room in Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay, shown March 13, 1956. Decor has changed from traditional gray to a light pink. (AP Photo/Ernest K. Bennett)
Number two gun tower on the west side of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary is shown March 13, 1956. At right is the recreation yard. (AP Photo/Ernest K. Bennett)
This is a view of one of the three cell tiers with individual cells at the main block of the federal prison for dangerous criminals at Alcatraz island, San Francisco, Calif., on March 15, 1956. (AP Photo)
This is an aerial view of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay, shown June 12, 1962. Three bank robbers are thought to have escaped using a crude raft or driftwood. (AP Photo)
This is a view of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay, shown June 12, 1962, the day three prisoners escaped. (AP Photo)
A line of handcuffed prisoners, the last of the convicts held at Alcatraz prison, walk through the cell block as they are transferred to other prisons from Alcatraz Island on San Francisco Bay, Calif., March 21, 1963. Alcatraz, known as "The Rock," was a federal penitentiary for 29 years and a prison for more than a century. (AP Photo)
Jim Lowrie, a guard on Alcatraz's cell block, looks over the empty cell block after the last of the prisoners left the Rock for removal to other prisons, March 21, 1963 in San Francisco. (AP Photo)
A group of Sioux Indians staking their claim to Alcatraz Island, site of the now empty federal prison in San Francisco March 9, 1964. The Native Americans came complete with an attorney, Elliott Leighton of San Francisco, who said they were basing their claims under an 1868 treaty granting the Sioux the right to claim federal land “not used for a specific purpose.” James F. Smith, one of the five-man caretaker staff, said the Native Americans left after being persuaded that the federal government had not yet legally abandoned the island. (AP Photo)
Part of a band of American Indians look over the main cell block of Alcatraz after occupying the island for the second time in two weeks in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 1969. The Indians say they want the island for a new Indian center to replace a San Francisco building destroyed by fire. The General Service Administration asked the Indians to leave but threatened no immediate action. (AP Photo/RWK)
Five of the small band of Indians removed from Alcatraz Island by U.S. marshals, leave the bus in background which brought them to San Francisco, June 11, 1971. Officials announced that six men, four women and five children were removed in Coast Guard boats which took them to a Coast Guard facility and then transported them to San Francisco. The group removed was the last of a band who occupied the former prison island since late November 1969. (AP Photo/Sal Veder)
A United States police officer and an American Patrol Service dog handler patrol the perimeter of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California, June 13, 1971 to keep any unauthorized persons off the former federal prison island. Barbed wire has been strung and crews are working to restore lighthouse operation on the island that was evacuated of all Indians that had occupied the deserted structure for nineteen months. San Francisco skyline is in background. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
A man on a jet ski hits a wave just off Alcatraz Island where the movie, "The Rock," was making its premiere in San Francisco, Monday June 3, 1996. Five hundred guests attended the premiere which was one of the most unique premieres in Hollywood history. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
A view of the lighthouse on Alcatraz Island, built in 1909 and is still functioning, is shown in San Francisco, Oct. 22, 2001. The sign in the foreground warns of prosecution and imprisonment for for hiding escaped prisoners of the prison. (AP Photo/Fred Seelig)
** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE--FILE **Vistors walk down "Broadway," the primary cellblock in the former prison cellhouse on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, in this Oct. 22, 2001, file photo. (AP Photo/Fred Seelig/FILE)
Tourists sit in the prison dining area during an evening tour of Alcatraz, the historical island prison, on the San Francisco Bay, April 15, 2006. About 1 million people tour Alcatraz each year, making it one of the Bay Area's top tourist attractions. Most visit during the day, however, while a night tour provides a more authentic glimpse of life on "the Rock." (AP Photo/Jakub Mosur)
The empty Alcatraz Island that was once a prison in California, shown June 13, 1971. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
A pedestrian crosses Hyde Street with Alcatraz Island at rear in San Francisco, Tuesday, March 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Stephen Haller, a historian with the National Park Service, sits and talks about the citadel also known as the dungeon, during a tour of newly restored areas on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. The National Park Service pulled the tarps off upgrades at Alcatraz Island after $3 million in improvements to the guardhouse, the citadel and other historic features. The park service on Wednesday unveiled the results of more than a year of work. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this view looking up from a dry moat, a man looks at the newly restored sally port and guardhouse on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. The National Park Service pulled the tarps off upgrades at Alcatraz Island after $3 million in improvements to the guardhouse, the citadel and other historic features. The park service on Wednesday unveiled the results of more than a year of work. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Shown are cells on A block of the main cell house on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Hash marks are shown on a wall in the citadel, also known as the dungeon, on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Stephen Haller, a historian with the National Park Service, stands in A block of the main cell house on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Graffiti dating from the American Indian occupation is shown on a ceiling in the citadel, also known as the dungeon, on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Media and guests walk through the citadel, also known as the the dungeon, during a tour of newly restored areas on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. The National Park Service pulled the tarps off upgrades at Alcatraz Island after $3 million in improvements to the guardhouse, the citadel and other historic features. The park service on Wednesday unveiled the results of more than a year of work. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
People make their way down toward the main dock with the sally port and guard house in the background on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

On the night of June 1, 1971, a fire broke out which destroyed several buildings. The government blamed the occupiers, who blamed government infiltrators. The number of occupiers dwindled.

A few days later, with President Nixon's approval, the feds made their move. On June 11, 1971, nearly 18 months after the start of the occupation, federal marshals came ashore and evicted the last 15 occupiers.

Though the end of the occupation felt like a defeat, the entire effort had a tremendous impact far beyond simple awareness-raising.

As a direct result of the occupation, federal policies of relocation and termination were abandoned and numerous laws were passed to support Native American self-determination, recognition, health and education. Tribal lands across the country were returned, from Mount Adams in Washington to 48,000 acres around Blue Lake in New Mexico.

Many of the veterans of the occupation went on to continue their activism and participated in further demonstrations, including the 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters and the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners