When Native American activists took control of Alcatraz for 18 months

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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.

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The Native American occupation of Alcatraz: 1969-1971
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The Native American occupation of Alcatraz: 1969-1971
(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.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
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.
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)
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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:

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History of Alcatraz
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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)
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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.

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