Occupy Alcatraz Turns Fifty

Dec 3, 2019 By James H, Writer
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Off the coast of San Francisco, California, lies Alcatraz Island.

Also known as “the Rock,” the island was once home to some of the most infamous criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud (known as the Birdman).

But the island has another significance as well, other than the fact that it was once a prison. Over 50 years ago on November 20, 1969, Native American activists took over Alcatraz Island as a protest how they were being treated by the US government.

Occupy Alcatraz

By the 1960s, Alcatraz Island was abandoned and no longer used as a prison due to a lack of fresh water on the island.

Native Americans in the Bay Area began lobbying to turn the island into an Indian language and cultural center. A group of Native Americans first attempted to take over the island because claiming that the 1868 treaty between the US government and the Sioux tribe allowed the Indians to claim any “unoccupied government land.” They were unsuccessful at first, but by 1969, the movement grew, and American Indian activists occupied the island. 

At first, 89 Native American activists resided in Alcatraz, but over the two years of occupation, the number increased to 400 people. Lack of freshwater wasn’t an issue because they faced similar circumstances in the poorly maintained reservation camps. Activists across the nation provided funds and supplies so that the residents could keep living on Alcatraz.

However, over time, people left the island and were replaced by vagrants who were not interested in supporting the activists’ cause. Once the leader of the movement left, the community fell apart as factions fought for control. After Nixon’s administration cut off power to the island, and a fire blazed through some of the buildings, support for the movement dropped. Federal marshals removed all residents from the island after 19 months of successful occupation.

Grievances of Native Americans

One of the biggest reasons Native American activists took over Alcatraz was to protest federal policies regarding the rights of Native Americans.

Over the course of US history, many treaties had been made between tribes and the US government, but many, if not all, have been broken by the US. In particular, the termination policy was going to take even more land from Native Americans as well as end their sovereign status. 

Negotiations were impossible at first. The Native Americans wanted the whole island as reparations for all the broken promises the US had made with them, but the US refused to give up the island. However, during the occupation, Nixon ended the termination policy and created a policy of self-determination, which allowed the Native Americans to self-govern and make decisions for themselves.

Alcatraz became a National Historic Landmark as well as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Today, Alcatraz Island is a tourist attraction that is visited by over 1.7 million tourists. And the island has become a symbol of the rights of Native Americans.

The video below captures scenes and interviews from the occupation 50 years ago.

Sources: Britannica, NPS.gov, History.com