Alcatraz is a desolate, wind-blown island in San Francisco Bay with no source of fresh water, poor soil, and few sources of food. It is best known as the site of a federal prison housing incarcerated gangsters and high-risk criminals. But in the tumultuous late 1960s, Alcatraz played a pivotal role in the unfolding story of Native American self-determination—dubbed “Red Power.”
By World War II, the federal government unveiled a new policy affecting the lives of Native Americans. In an effort to break up the reservation system, President Eisenhower signed the “Indian Termination and Relocation Policy” in 1953. The idea was to help eradicate the poverty and harsh living conditions of Indians living on reservations by pursuing a policy of citizenship and assimilation, and freedom from mismanaged government bureaucracies. Each native tribe would vote whether or not to “terminate” their relationship with the federal government. In some cases, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) promised educational scholarships and extensive federal investment in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects on land owned by Native Americans. The act of voting for termination meant dividing up tribal, communal ownership of native-owned land to individual families who would then be subject to federal and state income tax. High unemployment, grinding debt, and few educational opportunities, paired with corrupt practices by the BIA led many tribes to believe a vote for termination would improve their lives. But the record shows that the BIA honored few, if any, of their promises. Between 1953 and 1964, there were 109 tribes that agreed to renounce their sovereignty. However, none of these tribes had the aid of legal representation when deciding how to vote on this post-World War II federal policy.
From the perspective of the federal government, a vote for termination would improve the economic status of individual Native Americans by making them property owning, tax paying U.S. citizens. But Native Americans still found themselves living in impoverished rural conditions lacking the social cohesiveness of tribal life and the few opportunities for self-sufficient hunting, fishing, and tax-exemption that previous treaties had always honored. For many, survival required that Indian families sell their newly acquired private property and move to cities throughout the U.S.—giving rise to a new identity—Urban Indians. The thousands of Native American individuals who moved to U.S. cities did so without any economic support, job training, or safety net from the same federal agencies urging this transition.
The takeover of Alcatraz prison was a response of the Bay Area’s new “Urban Indians” to the aftermath of this policy. The island was actually “taken over” three times by Native Americans. The first attempt took place in 1964 after the government announced the prison would be closed. This takeover lasted four hours. A group of five Sioux Indians claimed the island by right of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. This treaty required that all retired or abandoned federal land be given back to the Indian tribe from which it was taken. The protestors also demanded that the island be turned into a Native American cultural center and Indian university—urgent resources for the growing population of Urban Indians.
The second takeover attempt, in November 1969, was inspired by a fire that burned down the San Francisco American Indian Center. This meeting place provided social services and help to more than 30,000 Urban Indians. But this second takeover lasted only one night.
Despite the setback, a group of local Indian college students was inspired to try a third time. They wrote a proclamation in advance, which in the spirit of the times was both visionary and humorous. They claimed the island by right of discover (rather than exhume a discarded treaty). They offered $24 to buy the island, payable in glass beads and red cloth, alluding to the sale and transfer of Manhattan Island 300 years earlier. Next, they listed all the environmental drawbacks of Alcatraz (no running water, complete isolation from modern facilities, rocky unproductive soil) and concluded with tongue firmly in cheek that such land was more than suitable as an Indian reservation because it clearly resembled all past reservations. Finally, in a moment of seriousness, they demanded that a number of cultural centers, schools and museums fostering knowledge and training in Indian culture be built on the island.
The third and most successful occupation of Alcatraz began at 2 a.m. on the morning of November 20, 1969. It lasted for nearly 19 months, finally ending in June 1971. The takeover began with a much larger group, 80 members, including families with young children, who sailed to the island and successfully bypassed a Coast Guard blockade. They held the island for more than a year and a half, despite an ongoing blockage and efforts by the government to turn off electricity and all incoming phone calls to the island. The occupiers’ success was due in part to the knowledge gained by the previous occupations, but also to public support of the occupation. Native American supporters took over empty warehouse on Pier 40 along the city’s waterfront to ferry people and supplies out to Alcatraz. The occupiers on the island set up a pirate radio station—Radio Free Alcatraz—the broadcast over KPFA-FM in Berkeley.
Public opinion began to turn against the occupation in June 1970, when a fire damaged the island’s lighthouse. Navigation in the Bay grew difficult. In January 1971, two oil tankers collided near Golden Gate Bridge, dumping 800,000 gallons of crude oil in the water. Public opinion and support began to turn. By late spring, the dwindling number of Indians had no fresh water, no electricity and little food. On June 11, 1971, a combined force of federal marshals, Coast Guard and FBI agents removed the last 15 people, including 5 children, ending the occupation.
The legacy of this occupation was more than considerable. In its midst, President Nixon declared in 1970 an end to the federal policy of Indian Termination. Nixon introduced 22 pieces of legislation to support and expand Indian self-determination. He increased funding for the BIA over 200 percent. He directed numerous government agencies to return land to Native Tribes. A new era of funding for Native American education initiatives and employment training was launched.
For other Urban Indians, this multitribal confrontation was considered the most successful political event by Native people in the entire 20th century. In the United States, Native American activists such as AIM member Russell Means cites the Alcatraz occupation as a new beginning when Indian youth expressed new interest in learning native dances and rituals, and began wearing native dress, including beads, chokers, ribboned shirts, and braided hair.
In 2004, the Museum of the American Indian was opened on the national mall, adding the long-neglected story of Native Americans history and culture to the Smithsonian Museums, the nation’s cultural repository.
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