50 Years of Solidarity
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz Island, one of the United States’ most powerful demonstrations of Indigenous self-determination. The occupation began when a small group of Native American students reclaimed a federally-owned island off the shores of San Francisco. Between 1969 and 1971, hundreds of Indigenous people and their allies came to show their support and solidarity throughout the 19-month-long vigil. This historic event birthed the American Indian Movement and laid the foundation for ongoing Indigenous activism today.
History of Alcatraz
The rocky island of Alcatraz was likely first visited by Indigenous people over 10,000 years ago. It is relatively unknown how exactly the island was used by the people living in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area, but it is likely they used the island for fishing, marine bird hunting, and egg collection, and possibly — foreshadowing subsequent uses — a place to exile people who had broken societal rules.
The island was later “discovered” by the Spanish in the late 18th century, and named for an archaic Spanish word meaning “pelican.” Due to its relative isolation, its rocky habitat, and the icy waters of the San Francisco bay, Alcatraz was designated as a military outpost and place to banish criminals and prisoners of war. Prior to becoming the famous federal penitentiary, the island served as a military fort, then later as a military prison. At some point in the transition between fort and prison, the island picked up the nickname “The Rock,” which follows it to this day. Between 1934 and 1963, Alcatraz island was used as the iconic federal maximum security prison, which housed Al Capone—infamous criminal and gangster—among other convicts.
After Alcatraz no longer served as a space of incarceration, its status as unused federal land made it a paragon for Native reclamation. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie states that unused or retired federal lands will be returned to Native American tribes. This treaty was part of a long list of documents put in place to establish the sovereignty of Indigenous tribes, separate from the U.S. Government. None of these treaties were honored.
A year after the closing of the federal penitentiary, Richard McKenzie, joined by four other Lakota men, cited this treaty in the first occupation of the island. They listed demands for the island, including its return to Native ownership, the building of a cultural center and an Indian University, and other line items. The occupation only lasted a short four hours but set the precedent later used by the Red Power movement. McKenzie’s original list was expanded upon in the larger occupation’s demands a few years later.
Indians of All Tribes
On Nov. 9, 1969, a group of five Native American students began leading the movement. They took a boat to get near the Rock and swam ashore, claiming Alcatraz by “right of discovery.” The students, including Richard Oakes from the Mohawk tribe, held space on Alcatraz in this initial act of reclamation. After just a few hours, the group of five men were removed by the Coast Guard. Consisting of a mix of Indigenous people from all over the country, they deemed themselves Indians Of All Tribes (IAT). Later that same day, Dr. LaNada (Boyer) War Jack, a Shoshone Bannock tribal member and student at the University of California, Berkeley, led another group of Native students in California to peacefully occupy Alcatraz in another act of defiance. The majority of the students who arrived in the second group stayed the night before leaving the following morning.
Later in the month, on Nov. 20, members of the same group bypassed a Coast Guard blockade to reclaim the Rock—this time for good. IAT formally announced the occupation in the Alcatraz Proclamation and stated a set of demands in a letter, building upon the ones laid out by those activists on the island who came before them. Among these demands was a $300,000 grant proposal, written by Dr. War Jack, to turn Alcatraz into an Indian social and cultural center.
"We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim,” wrote Oakes in a message to the San Francisco Department of the Interior shortly after IAT seized the island. “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."
Such began months-long negotiations with the federal government. For the most part, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Coast Guard would stand down by order of President Richard Nixon, playing a role of relative non-interference for the first year of the occupation.
Students in the original occupation began organizing for a much bigger one. Oakes, a San Francisco State University student, went to the University of California, Los Angeles shortly after the start of the occupation and rallied 80 Indigenous students from the American Indian Studies Center on campus to come to Alcatraz. The original group returned to the island, this time with over 100 Natives, including students and families.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1969, hundreds of people gathered at the Rock to show support for the occupation. In 1976, the year after Alcatraz became a National Park, the Sunrise ceremony became official. It is now celebrated each year on Thanksgiving, also called Unthanksgiving or Thankstaking.
Though people came from all over the state to participate in the takeover of Alcatraz, California was not originally home to many of the occupiers. Following the second World War, in an effort to build up post-war society, the U.S. government had begun claiming Native lands for use in infrastructure projects. One such example, the Flood Prevention Acts of 1944, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, led to the building of dams along the Missouri River that ultimately flooded over 22,000 acres of Yankton Sioux land and impacted 23 Native reservations. The damage of Native lands was followed by what was referred to as American Indian Urban Relocation, a program that sent masses of Native people to metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, and of course, San Francisco. Promises of jobs and housing in these cities led to a major shift: 80 percent of Native Americans now lived in cities. Unsurprisingly, the government was not able to back up its promises, and the move led to joblessness, homesickness, and lack of cultural connection.
For this new crop of “Urban Indians,” Alcatraz offered a space to reclaim Native identity.
With so many people on the island, many planning to stay as long as possible, the Natives who flooded in began setting up new lives on the remains of the penitentiary. Though contention existed throughout the occupation, it was generally understood that Richard Oakes was the leader. Some even went as far as referring to him as the “Mayor of Alcatraz.” The island quickly became a principled, organized society. By the second day, the occupiers had established a medical clinic, complete with three doctors and two nurses, including Madonna Thunder Hawk—now the tribal liaison for the Lakota Peoples Law Project. Within a week, IAT had created the Big Rock School, a K-12 campus which eventually taught 22 attendees. People moved into the old jail cells and made Alcatraz their new home.
Public support grew with wide press coverage of the occupation, and instigated a surge in public literacy around issues of Native American sovereignty. Celebrities such as actors Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda and Indigenous musician Buffy Sainte-Marie visited the island; Creedence Clearwater Revival even held a concert on a boat off the shores of Alcatraz before donating the boat for food and transportation. The following January, Native occupants began writing a newsletter, and Santee activist John Trudell’s radio broadcast—Radio Free Alcatraz—was able to reach people all over the Bay Area.
Like in many extended protests, however, problems began to arise. The population exceeded the capacity of the island. People quarreled over leadership and consensus. Students started heading back to school. New arrivals to the island brought banned substances from San Francisco’s thriving drug culture of the time. Then, on Jan. 5, 1970, Oakes’ 13 year old step-daughter, Yvonne Oakes, fell down a stairwell to her death. With little heart left to carry on after the incident, Oakes and his family left the island, leaving behind a struggle for power in his absence. By late May 1971, the government ended its policy of non-interference and shut power and running water off on the island. In June, 1971, government officers forcibly removed the last remaining 15 people.
“Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea. It’s the idea that you can recapture and be in control of your life and your destiny, and self-determine your future.”Richard Oakes
"We're all just remnants today,” says Dr. War Jack in the Native Press. “Torn and scattered all over the place."
In the years following, many of the Indigenous occupants went on to participate in other demonstrations, particularly within the American Indian Movement (AIM). Trudell later became a prominent leader with AIM, serving as a National Chair during the 71-day siege of Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973. Thunder Hawk played a pivotal role in her work with AIM, both during and after the Wounded Knee stand-off, and would later join the resistance at Standing Rock. Oakes went on to support the Pit River Indians’ struggle in trying to reclaim their stolen land from PG&E in Mount Shasta, California.
Though the occupiers were not granted ownership of Alcatraz, the movement was not a failure. It inspired public consciousness about the plight for Indigenous sovereignty, catalyzed decades of Indigenous activism, and made Native self-determination a mandatory inclusion in future policy-making. One major victory came in 1970, when President Nixon called for an end to Native American exclusion, including official policy to end the Indian Relocation Act. He also pushed Congress to pass a bill that would return sacred lands to the Taos Pueblo people.
Today, the thread of pan-Indigenous solidarity started at Alcatraz is most clearly stitched into the fabric of the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock.
In early 2016, a peaceful protest began on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, an attempt to stop the construction, through unceded Native lands, of the Dakota Access pipeline. Much like the demonstrations that came before them, this action began mostly with Indigenous communities and then created a groundswell of both Native and settler support as the resistance grew.
“We are all represented here,” said Thunder Hawk of the different Indigenous nations present at the camps. “We’re all evidence of the Western Hemisphere. And we’re all here because of water.”
People from all over began showing up in support, collectively known as water protectors. Several people of note, such as Dr. Cornel West and actors Shailene Woodley and Mark Ruffalo, were among those that rallied to the cause. Jane Fonda, who brought media attention to Alcatraz, served turkey to water protectors on Thanksgiving Day in 2016.
Ultimately, the protest faced existential crises similar to the Alcatraz occupation: a government barricade impacted supply lines; internal indecision affected the direction of the movement; and protesters remained at elevated risk for arrest or police violence. Today, several water protectors from Standing Rock remain imprisoned, including an Oglala Lakota woman named Red Fawn Fallis. The struggle for clean water and protection of land is far from over, as the pipeline still threatens Lakota land almost four years after the original mass protest.
On Thanksgiving Day every year since 1975, Indigenous people and allies have come back to Alcatraz Island to participate in a Sunrise ceremony to honor the memory of the 1969 stand. Recent crowds totaled over a thousand attendees. The gathering coincides with the National Day of Mourning, held in Massachusetts, and celebrates the resilience of Indigenous people through the horrors of settlement.
These acts of occupation and reclamation—Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, #NoDAPL—are all embers that fuel the fire of resistance against continued mistreatment of Native communities and land.
“Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea,” Oakes once famously said. “It’s the idea that you can recapture and be in control of your life and your destiny, and self-determine your future.”
That idea, 50 years later, is very much alive and well.
Above: Madonna Thunder Hawk speaking to Tony Gonzales on KPFA from Alcatraz during an Indigenous People's Day sunrise ceremony, 2017.
Supplemental reporting by Kelsey Hill