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It seems few people are aware of this very fascinating history. In 1969 a group of native American Indians commandeered Alcatraz Island off San Francisco in 1969, and they actually did have a prisoner or two, (a park guard who had been stationed there when they arrived) for a short while, until they let them go. They were protesting the us government's breaking of numerous treaties with Native American Indians.
It's quite a fascinating story, and if you ever visit you can spend literally days at this place. they have archived news footage, photos, journals, etc.
This of course is in addition to the Island's better-known history as a prison, and civil war camp, prior to that. When my wife & I went to Alcatraz in 2008 I got all kinds of pictures. I had never heard of this occupation, and I found it more interesting than the history of Alcatraz prison. They still have the spray paint on the walls as the boat approaches the island which says 'this is Indian land.'
The Indians had people bring out food and supplies by boat, and they occupied and lived on the island for quite some time, until 1971. The FBI and military took a "hands off" approach.
In the end, one of the leader's daughters fell off a balcony and died. That greatly hurt morale. and soon after that, there was a huge fire on the island. To this day the feds claim the Indians started it, and the Indians claim the feds started it, but that pretty much wiped out their occupation. The feds then rushed in and arrested all of the remaining Indians.
It is a very fascinating tidbit of history.
Below are more thorough and competent recollections of the event, along with genuine video footage.
Richard Oakes delivering the Alcatraz Proclamation (1969) - from THE EDUCATION ARCHIVE
NativeVillage.org: 1969 OCCUPATION OF ALCATRAZ [EXCERPTS:]
California: From November 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971, Native Americans took over and held Alcatraz Island as Indian Land. The Occupation of Alcatraz Island" was led by the Native American group, Indians of All Tribes (IAT).
The take-over lasted 14-months and ended when the Indians were forcibly removed by the federal government. Indians of All Tribes claimed the island by citing the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Sioux. The treaty returned to Native peoples all retired, abandoned and out-of use federal lands. When Alcatraz penitentiary closed in 1963, the U.S. declared the island as surplus federal property. So Red Power activists reclaimed it.
On March 9, 1964, Richard McKenzie and other Sioux occupied Alcatraz for four hours. On November 9, 1969, another group of activists returned. A boat carried Richard Oakes (Mohawk), Jim Vaughn (Cherokee), Joe Bill (Eskimo), Ross Harden (Ho-Chunk) and Jerry Hatch close to the island. Then the men jumped overboard, swam to shore, and claimed the island by right of discovery.The Coast Guard quickly removed them. Later that day, a larger group made their way to the island. Fourteen stayed overnight. The next day, the group proclaimed the island by right of discovery. Then they left the island.
On November 20, 1969, American Indians again landed on Alcatraz-- despite an attempted Coast Guard blockade. The 79 Indians included including students, married couples and six children which included actor Benjaman Bratt and his siblings. To announce their action to the world, the dissidents issued the Alcatraz Proclamation. The occupiers cited treatment under the Indian Termination policy as the reason. They also accused the U.S. of breaking numerous Indian treaties.
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE: We Hold the Rock
The November 9, 1969 occupation was planned by Richard Oakes, a group of Indian students, and a group of urban Indians from the Bay Area. Since many different tribes were represented, the name "Indians of All Tribes" was adopted for the group. They claimed the island in the name of Indians of all tribes and left the island to return later that same evening. In meetings following the November 9th occupation, Oakes and his fellow American Indian students realized that a prolonged occupation was possible. Oakes visited the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA where he recruited Indian students for what would become the longest prolonged occupation of a federal facility by Indian people to this very day. Eighty Indian students from UCLA were among the approximately 100 Indian people who occupied Alcatraz Island.
It is important to remember that the occupation force was made up initially of young urban Indian college students. And the most inspirational person was Richard Oakes. Oakes is described by most of those as handsome, charismatic, a talented orator, and a natural leader. Oakes was the most knowledgeable about the landings and the most often sought out and identified as the leader, the Chief, the mayor of Alcatraz.
"Broken Treaty" jacket worn by an American Indian on Alcatraz
The back and forth with the Government
Once the occupiers had established themselves on the island, organization began immediately. An elected council was put into place and everyone on the island had a job; security, sanitation, day-care, school, housing, cooking, laundry, and all decisions were made by unanimous consent of the people.
The federal government initially insisted that the Indian people leave the island, placed an ineffective barricade around the island, and eventually agreed to demands by the Indian council that formal negotiations be held. From the Indians side, the negotiations were fixed. They wanted the deed to the island, they wanted to establish an Indian university, a cultural center, and a museum. The government negotiators insisted that the occupiers could have none of these and insisted that they leave the island.
By early 1970 the Indian organization began to fall into disarray. Two groups rose in opposition to Richard Oakes and as the Indian students began returning to school in January 1970, they were replaced by Indian people from the urban areas and from reservations who have not been involved in the initial occupation. Additionally, many non-Indians now began taking up residency on the island, many from the San Francisco hippie and drug culture. The final blow to the organized leadership occurred on January 5, 1970, when Oakes's 13 year old stepdaughter fell three floors down a stairwell to her death. Following Yvonne's death, Oakes left the island and the two competing groups maneuvered back and forth for leadership on the island.
The federal government responded to the occupation by adopting a position of non-interference. The FBI was directed to remain clear of the island. The Coast Guard was directed not to interfere, and the Government Services Administration (GSA) was instructed not to remove the Indians from the island. While it appeared to those on the island that negotiations were actually taking place, in fact, the federal government was playing a waiting game, hoping that support for the occupation would subside and those on the island would elect to end the occupation. At one point, secret negotiations were held where the occupiers were offered a portion of Fort Miley, in San Francisco, as an alternative site to Alcatraz Island. By this time, mid-1970, however, those on the island had become so entrenched that nothing less than full title to the island, the establishing of a university and cultural center, would suffice.
Legendary Russell Means harshly criticizes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian leadership of reservations. One of a kind, RIP November 10, 1939 -- October 22, 2012
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