The island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay became famous as the site of a former federal prison. In its day, the prison held some of the most dangerous U.S. criminals, from convicted murderers to famous crime bosses such as Al Capone (1899–1947). The history of the island both before and since, however, is equally interesting.
Although frequently mentioned in the oral histories of indigenous California native groups, the first survey of the island by a European occurred in 1775. Juan Manuel de Ayala (1747–1797), a Spanish naval officer, sailed into San Francisco Bay on behalf of the Spanish Crown, which was hoping to stake a claim on the island before Russian explorers could claim it as their own. Based on its extensive population of large seabirds, de Ayala named it La Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Soon after, the island became known simply by its Spanish singular, Alcatraz.
In 1849, one year after California became part of the United States due to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the federal government bought the island, and it became the site of a military base and prison for almost seventy-seven years. In a foreshadowing of events to come, the prison frequently housed rebel Native American chiefs. In the 1870s, several prominent Paiute, Apache, and Modoc warriors were held there. In 1895 Alcatraz held nineteen captives from the Hopi tribe in Arizona. These prisoners had resisted federal Indian policy on the use of their reservation land and the forced assimilation of their children.
In 1934 the prison was officially transferred from the military to the Justice Department. It then served as a maximum security prison until March 21, 1963. It was considered an ideal location for dangerous prisoners because the island was 1.5 miles from the coast and surrounded by cold, swift currents that were considered deadly to anyone trying to swim across. The increasing cost of the facility and the construction of alternative prisons, however, led to its closure.
The abandonment of the island resonated with some Native Americans, who also felt abandoned by the U.S. government. Their grievances were not without cause. In 1953 Congress had unanimously passed a bill terminating 109 tribes and encouraging Native Americans living on reservations to relocate to large cities. Although drafted with the debatably good intention of alleviating reservation poverty, the legislation was nonetheless vociferously opposed by Indian groups who viewed it as an abrogation of federal treaty law and, indeed, nothing short of a land grab. Though the last major military clash between U.S. troops and Native Americans had taken place in 1890 at Wounded Knee, conflict had continued to simmer at the level of policy, as Native Americans sought justice regarding land, education, and cultural issues.
By 1964 there were as many as forty thousand Native Americans living in San Francisco, 60 percent of whom had been relocated through federal work programs. Many had traded a poor but socially cohesive life on the reservation for the degradations of urban poverty, including joblessness, substance abuse, and dilapidated housing. Caught between economic necessity and the loss of traditional culture, many of these so-called urban Indians began to develop a new identity and to pursue the cause of civil rights. This development happened to coincide with other prominent civil rights struggles, most notably that of African Americans. As campuses across California became increasingly radicalized, young and urban Native Americans banded together, forming pan-Indian groups such as the Intertribal Friendship House.
Almost exactly a year after the island prison was shut down, an attempt to occupy the island by Bay Area students of Native American descent proved unsuccessful. An attempt was repeated on November 7, 1969, and was once again repelled. The leader of this attempt was Richard Oakes (1942–1972), a young working-class Mohawk whose well-spoken demeanor and charisma would be key to capturing the media spotlight. Oakes issued a proclamation stating that Alcatraz would make a suitable Indian reservation because, like other reservations, it had no natural resources, inadequate sanitation, no running water, and was isolated from the rest of the world. Oakes and his small group stayed only one night on the island and departed under threat of arrest. The third and final attempt to occupy the island, thirteen days later, would prove long-lasting. More important, the occupiers, under the banner of the Indians of All Tribes (IAT), gained national publicity and sparked a public debate about the treatment of Native Americans.
Early on the morning of November 20, 1969, some seventy-eight Native American activists traveled by boat in an attempt to occupy Alcatraz Island. Most of the group’s members lived in the Bay Area, then a hotbed of social protest. Comprising members of numerous tribes, the group was united in its opposition to what it considered hostile federal policy, the theft of traditional lands, and widespread discrimination.
The group claimed that the United States government had, in a nineteenth-century treaty with the Sioux, granted Native Americans the right to reclaim abandoned federal lands as their own. Since Alcatraz Island was no longer in use, IAT sought to have the island declared tribal lands. Only a handful of the first wave of occupiers were able to successfully land on the island—the Coast Guard had been on alert due to the previous attempts—but the number of occupiers quickly grew. The occupiers nominated Richard Oakes as spokesman to communicate their demands. These included recognition of the historical injustice against the Native Americans and more practically the foundation of a university and cultural center on the island dedicated to American Indian life.
At first the movement garnered widespread public support. Celebrities such as Marlon Brando (1924–2004), Anthony Quinn (1915–2001), and Jane Fonda (1937–) visited the island to show their support. President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994), whose Quaker upbringing reportedly made him sympathetic to the cause, refrained from sending in federal agents, and in light of the movement’s strong public support, focused on maintaining a dialogue with the occupiers. Soon the movement was even broadcasting on the radio with John Trudell (1946–), a Sioux in the group, as the voice of Radio Free Alcatraz. The occupiers of Alcatraz now refused to leave until the island was recognized as their property. Despite several meetings with government officials, the group’s demands were not met.
The combination of limited facilities and an unruly group of protesters soon led to vandalism, disorganization, and physical danger—all major obstacles to the group’s success. Oakes’s thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Yvonne (c. 1957–1970), fell to her death from a balcony on one of the island buildings, prompting the Oakes family to leave the island. Later that year a large fire destroyed several historic sections of the island. The government cut power to the island, which also shut off an important lighthouse located there, making ship navigation more dangerous. Over the next year, as public support for the occupation plummeted, tensions with federal officials continued to run high. The number of occupiers dwindled to just fifteen. On June 11, 1971, twenty federal marshals evicted the protesters.
Not all Native American groups had supported the occupiers. Some California Indian tribes complained that the urban Native Americans occupying the island had no real claim to it, while other, often older, Native Americans considered the group’s tactics ineffective and embarrassing. Still others, both Native American and not, were inspired by the takeover. Several Indian groups launched their own initiatives across the country, including attempts to seize Fort Lawton near Seattle and Ellis Island in New York.
The militant American Indian Movement (AIM), which had visited and supported the Alcatraz occupations, used the publicity to launch a series of its own occupations of federal buildings. In 1972 the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., was stormed. In February 1973, roughly two hundred protesters, led by AIM leaders Russell Means (1939–2012) and Dennis Banks (1937–), captured Wounded Knee, the famous site of a Native American massacre in 1890. These protesters held out until May, surrendering to federal marshals in exchange for negotiations on their grievances.
Although the protesters were eventually dislodged from Alcatraz, their effect on federal Indian policy was remarkably positive. Congress ended the misguided policy of tribal termination and passed extensive legislation for self-rule on reservations. Nixon’s administration greatly increased the budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as scholarships for Native American students. In 1972 Congress moved swiftly to declare Alcatraz a national park and a part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, transforming it into a premier tourist destination.
“Native American Activists Occupy Alcatraz: November 20, 1969–June 11, 1971.” Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History. Ed. Jennifer Stock. Vol. 6: North America. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. U.S. History in Context. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.