A People's History Poster from 2006.
On the face of it the property was not very attractive. In fact it had serious issues. Stuck in the middle of San Francisco Bay it was typically damp and cold, shrouded often by that famous fog. Access by boat from the shore was difficult and inconvenient. The property was largely occupied by hulking, ugly abandon buildings sinking rapidly into disrepair and perhaps haunted by generations of human sufferings that had gone on within their walls.
None-the-less, fifty years ago today on November 20, 1969 a rag-tag and barely organized group of Native Americans, most of them local college students, dodged Coast Guard boats to land on Alcatraz Island and claim it in the name of all Indian people by virtue of the Right of Discovery and provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 which reserved the right of the Native Nations to claim all unused and surplus Federal Government property.
Alcatraz Island including the Coast Guard Light House and the abandoned Federal Prison cell block and out buildings.
Alcatraz certainly fit that bill. The rugged island named for the pelicans that roosted there by the Spanish came into the possession of the United States Government after the Mexican War. A costal defense fortification was erected and garrisoned in the 1850’s. Not long after, the first operational light house on the West Coast was built on its high point. During the Civil War the Fort doubled as a prison for the first time housing Confederate sympathizers and agents, and the crews of Rebel privateers captured by the Navy. After the war the defenses were considered obsolete and the facility became an official military prison in 1868 housing soldiers convicted of crimes and deserters. Later some Native American “renegades” were also detained there beginning with some Hopi men in the 1870’s. After the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 civilian prisoners from the city were transferred there for safe keeping.
Designated as the main Army prison for the West Coast, an enormous modern, multiple story cell block was erected over the subterranean first floor of the former citadel and opened in 1912. During World War I Draft evaders and conscientious objectors joined the military offenders. The military prison was decommissioned in 1933 and transferred to the Department of Justice.
The following year the Bureau of Prison re-opened it as maximum security facility housing prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. Among its inmates was a who’s who of hardened criminals including Al Capone—slipping rapidly into syphilis induced dementia—George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Puerto Rican Nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda, Mickey Cohen, Arthur “Doc” Barker, James “Whitey” Bulger, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis.
There were no successful attempts to escape the island, although several men died trying either by being shot in the attempt or drowning in the treacherous waters of the Bay. Shortly after a particularly bloody botched mass escape attempt in 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the prison shut down and most of its prisoners transferred to the new maximum security prison at Marion, Illinois in 1963.
The island was soon deserted except for the Coast Guard lighthouse. Its buildings had been rapidly deteriorating for years in the damp, salty conditions of the bay. Without constant attention they quickly got worse. Although the old prison became something of a tourist attraction, with tour boats circling it, the government had no clear plans for its future use.
It first attracted the attention of local Indian activists in 1964. On March 8 of that year 40 Sioux activists led by Richard McKenzie, Mark Martinez, Garfield Spotted Elk, Virgil Standing-Elk, Walter Means, and Allen Cottie occupied the island for four hours, laying symbolic claim to it under the Fort Laramie treaty but generously offering to pay the government 47 cents per acre or $9.40 for the entire island, the same price offered Red Cloud for the vast tracks of land ceded in the 1868 treaty.
The idea continued to percolate in the Native American activist community, especially at Bay Area campuses where Indian students began organizing inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.
The iconic image of the occupation by Ilka Hartman--young Native Americans raise the Red Power fist salute on the Alcatraz docks.
Adam Fortunate Eagle, a 40 year old Ojibwa first conceived of a new occupation of Alcatraz. He encountered Richard Oakes, a 30 year old Mohawk who had helped found the Native American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, at a party. The two, soon joined by Shoshone Bannock LaNada Means, head of the Native American Student Organization at the University of California, Berkeley, began to plan another occupation and Oaks recruited students from groups on several campuses.
On November 9, 1969 boats that were supposed to transport demonstrators to the island failed to appear. Fortunate Eagle somehow convinced the owner of the sailing yacht Monte Cristo, then giving tours of the Bay, to take on the protestors and sail by Alcatraz Island. Oakes, Cherokee Jim Vaughn, Inuit Joe Bill, Ho-Chunk Ross Harden, and Jerry Hatch jumped overboard, swam to shore, and claimed the island by right of discovery. They were quickly removed by the Coast Guard but later that day 14 others made it to the island and managed to camp out overnight before being ejected. When Fortunate Eagle presented an official document to the General Services Administration (GSA) in San Francisco that day demanding that the island be turned over to the United Tribes it made headlines across the country.
Organizers then began planning a permanent occupation.
That effort was launched in the pre-dawn hours of November 20 and involved 79 native activists, most of them students but also including some married couples and six children. An alerted Coast Guard prevented most of the small boats transporting them from landing but 14 made it to shore including Oakes, Means, Bill, and David Leach, John Whitefox, Ross Harden, Jim Vaughn, Linda Arayando, Vernell Blindman, Kay Many Horse, John Virgil, John Martell, Fred Shelton, and Rick Evening.
Blackfoot longshoreman Joseph Morris, center, rented space on Pier 40 to transport supplies and people to the island.
This time no effort was made to dislodge the occupiers and despite the harassment of the Coast Guard. Over the next several days the number of occupiers swelled. Some of these early arrivals played key roles as events played out. Blackfoot Joe Morris was a member of the Longshoremen’s Union, a group with a long, storied, and proud radical heritage. He was instrumental in having the union announce that it would launch a general strike on the docks if attempts were made to remove the Indians. This was an excellent insurance policy. He also later rented space on Pier 40 to facilitate the transportation of supplies and people to the island.
Sioux John Trudell quickly became a public spokesman of the movement and began broadcasting Radio Free Alcatraz, daily reports to the Berkley campus FM radio station.
Cleo Watterman, a Seneca, was President of the San Francisco American Indian Center, and stayed on shore to organize broader support and to help collect and forward supplies and provisions as the population on the island grew.
Grace Thorpe, the daughter of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe, used her wide connections with Hollywood celebrities, to drum up star power support. She was aided by jazz singer Kay Starr, an Iroquois born on a Dougherty, Oklahoma reservation. Jane Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando, Jonathan Winters, Cree Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Dick Gregory were all enlisted to visit the island and show their support. Thorpe also personally donated a generator, water barge, and an ambulance service to the island. She was instrumental in getting a $15,000 donation from Credence Clearwater Revival which was used to purchase the Clearwater which provided reliable, safe service to the island.
A highlight of the early period of the occupation occurred on November 27, when the first Unthanksgiving was thrown attracting hundreds of day visitors. Two days later a sympathetic Bureau of Indian Affairs employee, Doris Purdy came and shot a short film.
President Richard Nixon appointed his Special Counsel, Leonard Garment to take over negotiations from the GSA. He was instructed to concede nothing on the Indian claims under Treaties and to try and get them off the island without provoking a crisis. Talks were not successful.
Meanwhile sympathy for the occupation was rising. Press coverage was generally positive.
Mohawk Richard Oakes, left, one of the planners of the occupation and a key leader in the early day,s withdrew after his 13 year old daughter died in a fall from a wall.
However after the first of the year, things began to deteriorate on the island. On January 3 Richard Oakes’s 13 year old stepdaughter Anne fell to her death from a wall. The heartbroken Oakes and his wife Yvonne withdrew from the island leaving something of a leadership vacuum which Means, Trudell, and Stella Leach strove to fill. Means, who was more comfortable with the press than many of the others, became the most publicly visible spokesperson for the movement, although she soon found herself facing internal discord.
Several of the original occupiers departed to return to school. Meanwhile the population, which at one point reached nearly 400, swelled with many of the Native American homeless, including those with drinking and drug abuse problems. Incidents of violence between residents increased as did harassment and sexual attacks on some women. White supporters had been welcome, but several street freaks moved in brining increased drug use. Leaders tried to counter with increased self-policing and a ban on non-Indians staying overnight.
Bob Robertson, a Republican working for an outfit called the National Council on Indian Opportunity arrived in January. Means and some of the others thought he was an unofficial emissary from Nixon authorized to conduct back channel negotiations. He proposed turning the island over to the National Park Service with a promise that some kind of Indian Cultural center and continued access for events. This was entirely unsatisfactory to almost everyone, but Means met privately with him and three lawyers to solicit a $500,000 grant to renovate facilities on the Island. Robertson considered the attempt extortion and some of the other Native leaders suspected Means was fishing for a sinecure administrating the grant. Robertson turned down the proposal and left the island.
Means also hoped that if the United Tribes could secure a top-notch, high profile lawyer to sue the Federal Government for possession of the Island under the provisions of the Fort Laramie treaty, they would have a good chance to succeed. She began traveling from the island to raise funds for such a suit and to look for a hot-shot lawyer to take the case. In her absence rumors circulated, including that she had been offered a screen test and a movie contract.
Trudell and the occupiers local lawyers objected to Means’ plans. The majority of occupiers backed Trudell. Means and many of her supporters withdrew from the island.
Sensing the discord on the Island, in May the government stepped up pressure by turning off electricity and water service and increasing harassment of supply boats. Living conditions on the island began to deteriorate rapidly.
The warden's house, the keepers' quarters and other buildings burned under suspicious circumstances, undermining public support.
In early June fires of suspicious origins destroyed four historic buildings on the Island. Footage of black smoke drifting over the Bay made for dramatic television and the previously sympathetic press began turning on the occupiers. Numbers on the Island began dwindling down to a hard core.
On June 11, 1971, a large force of government officers removed the remaining 15 people from the island. Despite the problems the occupation lasted 19 months and inspired a wave of more than 200 acts of Native American civil disobedience, including an attempted take-over of an abandoned Nike missile site a few days later by some of the occupiers.
They also raised public sympathy for the Native American rights and land claims. They have been credited with influencing the shift in administrative policies away from away from termination of reservations and toward recognition Indian autonomy. Leaders of subsequent actions including the Trail of Broken Treaties, seizure of the Mayflower replica, the BIA Washington Headquarters occupation, the Wounded Knee incident, and the Longest Walk were all inspired by the Alcatraz example.
In 1972 Alcatraz became a National Recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Today, the island’s facilities are managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Park Service interpreters include discussion of the occupation on their tours and signs of it still remain.
And every year Native Americans hold and Unthanksgiving dinner on Alcatraz.