San Francisco, CA

The unknown story of the Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz Island

Built in the Bay

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(Courtesy of Doris Purdy)

By Ian Firstenberg

Next Monday, October 11 is a federal holiday. Over recent years, even not so recently, there was been much debate over what to call the holiday. Some say Columbus Day and others say Indigenous People's Day. In this context, it is important to remember and retell one of the many stories of subjugation, distrust and triumph of the Indigenous people in the Bay Area: the Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz Island for more than a year and a half.

In the fall of 1969, a group of 89 Indigenous Americans and their supporters occupied Alcatraz Island for more than a year and a half. The protesters lived peacefully on the island during those 19-months, helping to turn what was once the world's most infamous prison into a community for peace and reconciliation.

On June 11, 1971, the federal government forcibly removed the remaining 15 protestors, putting an end to the occupation that highlighted the long struggle of Indigenous Americans on the West Coast and across the nation.

Background

In 1963, in the wake of the official closure of Alcatraz Prison, Belva Cottier, a Rosebud Sioux, located a copy of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Cottier and her cousin, Richard McKenzie proposed that if the island was going to be surplus land, the Sioux could claim it.

On March 8, 1964, a small group of Sioux-- in total about 40 people -- occupied the island for four hours. Those protestors publicly offered the federal government the same compensation their ancestral tribes were offered: 47 cents per acre which amounted to roughly $9.40 for the entire island. Those protestors left after being threatened with felony charges.

On October 10, 1969, the San Francisco Indian Center burned down. The loss of the center drew understandable ire from the Native community. It provided healthcare, legal services, jobs and social opportunities for residents. This huge loss, in many ways, pushed the Native community towards an immediate takeover of the island rather than a formal application as was planned.

Adam Fortunate Eagle planned a symbolic occupation on Nov. 9 but when none of the boats showed up to ferry the 75 Natives to the island, he was forced to improvise. He convinced Roger Craig, the owner of the three-masted yacht Monte Cristo, to sail by the island. Richard Oakes, Jim Vaughn, Joe Bill, Ross Harden and Jerry Hatch jumped overboard and swam to shore and claimed the island under the right to discovery.

The Coast Guard eventually removed the men but later that day a group of 14 students rented a boat and traveled to the island with plans to stay the night. The group, which included Oakes, sought to distance themselves from Fortunate Eagle and other older leaders who they viewed as too moderate. Oakes delivered a speech written by Fortunate Eagle that claimed the island for the Native community, after which the group left.

Occupation

Early on November 20, 1969, 89 Indigenous people including more than 30 women and six children headed to Alcatraz Island. While a partial Coast Guard blockade stopped a portion of the party from landing on the island, again 14 people landed on the shores of the infamous island. The one guard on Alcatraz reportedly said "Mayday! Mayday! The Indians have landed."

At the height of the occupation, there were 400 people living on the island. The eclectic collection of Indigenous people represented a number of different tribes and came together to create a school, a daycare and a health clinic. LaNada Means was one of the first to arrive and the last to leave. She was critical in both shaping public support and drafting distinct policy proposals for the island.

While Native and non-Native volunteers helped bring supplies to the occupiers, the Coast Guard blockade made it increasingly difficult to get supplies to those on the island. According to Troy Johnson, who wrote The Occupation of Alcatraz, the suppliers traveled across the Bay in a canoe to remain undetected and dropped the supplies on the shoreline, at which point the occupiers carried the heavy supplies up the steep ladders leader back to the island's plateau.

Woesha Cloud North, who was Ho-Chunk, and Vicky Santana, who was Blackfoot, helped run the school along with Aranaydo. Aranaydo also helped run the kitchen with Luwana Quitquit, who was Pomo.

The infrastructure established on the island while in the midst of a Coast Guard blockade is remarkable. A relatively unfamiliar group of Natives were able to successfully live on the island for more than a year despite substantial federal opposition.

Doris Purdy, an employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an amateur photographer, accompanied a group that came to the island on Nov. 29. She stayed the night and recorded video footage.

The mostly student protestors drew from their experience working with Civil Rights leaders to strategize effective tactics for their occupation. While the Coast Guard blockade stopped an initial group from landing on the island, subsequent boats with more Native and non-Native people continued to land on the island even after late November.

A portion of the outrage that led to the protest and occupation stemmed from the federal government's treatment of Natives during the Indian termination policy which, through a series of laws, sought to assimilate Natives into American culture by removing their autonomy. Means and the protestors made it clear to the federal government and the American public that the occupiers wanted complete control of the island after the federal government's abhorrent treatment of Natives and repeated violations of the treaties they had originally signed.

Richard Oakes sent a message to the San Francisco Department of Interior.

"We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government – to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit's land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian. We do not fear your threat to charge us with crimes on our land. We and all other oppressed peoples would welcome spectacle of proof before the world of your title by genocide. Nevertheless, we seek peace," he said.

Days later, on Thanksgiving day, hundreds of Indigenous supporters came out to celebrate the occupation. In December of that year, Isani Sioux John Trudell began making daily radio broadcasts as a part of the Radio Free Alcatraz program. Trudell, who like many other native and POC activists was targeted by the FBI's COINTEL Program, helped to publicize the daily life for the occupiers while much of the national media remained silent.

Allies on the mainland like Cleo Waterman, Grace Thorpe and singer brought international and national attention to the occupation and helped with logistics for the occupiers. Thorpe, daughter of former NFL player Jim Thorpe, helped bring a generator, water barge and ambulance services to the island.

By early 1970, the occupation had changed with some members, including the Oakes family, leaving because of health issues. Other non-native occupiers settled on the island briefly before Natives on the island barred them from spending the night. Occupant John Trudell noted in an interview with Radio Free Alcatraz that water was still the biggest issue.

After Richard Oakes left following the death of his 13-year-old daughter, LaNada Means, John Trudell and Stella Leach sought to rebuild the reputation of the occupation which, in part, entailed Means' negotiation with Republican Robert Robertson is an attempt to secure a grant for a cultural center. Robertson initially refused much of the negotiations but in May 1970, the federal government began transferring management of Alcatraz to the Department of the Interior and the National Parks System. Without help from Means, it is unlikely that Alcatraz would be the monument it is today.

In the early portion of 1971, Means left the island to search for additional supporters. Rumors of her meeting with movie producers circulated around the island and the remaining occupiers became disillusioned with her approach, eventually following Trudell over Means. Participants and Native observers point to the division in approaches as one of the main ideological causes that led to the demise of the occupation.

By late May of 1971, the government had cut all electrical power and telephone service to the island. In June a fire broke out destroying much of the remaining infrastructure. On June 11, 1971, a large force of federal officials from a variety of agencies officials forcibly removed the remaining 15 occupiers.

Legacy

The legacy of the occupation is complex but widely viewed as a success. The occupation eventually led to increased Native autonomy rather than forced assimilation and while Indigenous communities are still severely under-resourced, the occupation served to remedy the forcible assimilation.

In total, more than 5,600 Natives joined the occupation for varying lengths of time. The occupation as a whole served to awaken much of the Indigenous cultural revival over the next three decades.

LaNada Means, now LaNada Boyer, views the occupation as critical to modern Indigenous culture.

"We're all just remnants today, torn and scattered all over the place," she told the Native Press. That torn and hurt community, scattered across the country and land taken from their ancestors, can view the occupation as a reckoning, according to Boyer. It was the start of a rebuilding effort that requires much more time and federal support, but it was a beautiful and influential start at that.

Today, Alcatraz sits quietly out in the Bay. Tourists from Oklahoma or Tokyo or Paris come to peer into the history preserved in the concrete walls. They take pleasant photos pretending to be Al Capone or John Dillinger blissfully unaware of the other history laid bare on the island. The history of mistrust and abuse. Of triumph and revival. The Alcatraz Occupation serves a remembrance and a beacon. A remebernace of the pain and suffering inflicted upon all of the Indigenous tribes of this country, and a beacon of the possibility for restitution and equity yet to come.

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