The siege of Alcatraz officially began on November 20, 1969, with two major goals — to agitate for Native American self-determination and sovereignty and to establish a Native American cultural center, museum and college on the island. In the 1960s, War Jack says, “just to identify yourself as a Native person would bring immediate discrimination and racism. [Alcatraz] helped us re-establish our self-identification as Native people. People developed pride.” Indeed, within days the numbers of Indigenous men, women and children on Alcatraz swelled from the 89 who landed on the island’s rocky shore in the early morning hours of November 20 to close to 1,000 by Thanksgiving Day that year. Led by a governing council that included Mohawk Richard Oakes, whom the press christened the movement’s leader, Indians of All Tribes, quickly released their demands and set about establishing a school, health center, nursery, library and security force among the ruins of Alcatraz prison. Donations poured in, and the message of the occupiers was amplified across the country, igniting a number of other Native occupations and protests in the months to follow, including the March 1970 invasion of Fort Lawton in Seattle and the takeover of a Bureau of Indian Affairs Office in Denver. “[Alcatraz] inspired a lot of people not to just give up but to keep going,” War Jack says. In its first six weeks, the Occupation of Alcatraz hummed smoothly along as negotiations with the federal government got underway. Then, in early January, the stepdaughter of de facto leader Oakes fell to her death from the third floor of an abandoned apartment building on the island. Oakes packed up his family and left. The ensuing power-struggle, as well as accusations of drugs, violence and the misappropriation of donations, began to seep into the media. At the end of May 1970, the federal government shut off all electrical power to Alcatraz. Two nights later, several buildings burned in a massive fire. Without electricity and a source of fresh water, the Occupation hobbled along for another year until, on June 10, 1971, the group was finally forced off the island. In the end, the conclusion of the Occupation marked a new beginning for Native people. Almost immediately, President Richard Nixon ended Public Law 280, which gave states legal jurisdiction over reservations, increased budgets at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services, and gave back millions of acres of tribal land. On the national stage, the American Indian Movement, founded in Minneapolis in 1968, took up the mantle of Native activism while protests and occupations erupted around the country. It’s a wave of consciousness that has only grown over time. During the 10-month standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016, thousands of Native people and non-Native allies participated in a protest that, thanks to social media and the hashtag #NoDAPL, was heard around the world.
A new generation of Native activists took a canoe journey around Alcatraz to mark Indigenous Peoples Day and pay homage to occupation of the island 50 years ago. #Alcatraz50 #IndigenousPeoplesDay #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth #NativeAmerican https://t.co/kvNjpmsRAH— indianz.com (@indianz) November 11, 2019
Even on The Rock, Native people are finally getting recognition. An exhibition on the Occupation and 19 months of Indigenous-organized cultural events will launch at Alcatraz Island National Park on November 20, the 50th anniversary of the takeover. While the battle against injustice and disenfranchisement is far from over—in fact, says War Jack, the government “is going completely in reverse” in its dealings with sovereign Native people—the Hopi prophecy still rings true: “We’re growing and we’re coming back...it’s the spirit of resistance that continues.”
Doug George-Kanentiio on how the Native patriots at Alcatraz, including Mohawk activist Richard Oakes, paved the way for our sovereignty and self-determination victories #IndianLand https://t.co/bT9YZEzwtp pic.twitter.com/WPdu3nvgDs— indianz.com (@indianz) February 1, 2019
Shoshi Parks wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Shoshi is a freelance writer and anthropologist specializing in history and travel. Her work has appeared at NPR, Smithsonian.com, Atlas Obscura, and other publications.
Note: This article appeared on YES! Magazine. It is published under a Creative Commons license.