On November 20, 1969, a group of Native American activists sailed to Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay and began an occupation of the former prison site.
The group was led by Mohawk student Richard Oakes and called itself Indians of All Tribes (IAT). They claimed the island under the Treaty of Fort Laramie, stating that retired federal land should be returned to Native peoples.
IAT hoped to establish a Native American cultural center and school on the island. Adam Nordwall, a Red Lake Ojibwe tribe member from Minnesota, was among the early occupiers.
The Occupation Begins
That morning, 89 Native American men, women and children landed on Alcatraz and announced they would not leave.
They began occupying the old prison structures, painting graffiti like "Red Power" and "Indians Welcome."
IAT issued a proclamation to the U.S. government, offering to buy Alcatraz for "$24 in glass beads" and citing the poor living conditions on reservations. They vowed to remain peaceful but refused to leave.
Developing a Community
Over the coming months, hundreds joined the occupation, settling into life on the island. They set up a clinic, school, radio station, and security force.
Celebrities visited and donations arrived to support the residents. The population peaked at 600 as activists came to show solidarity and experience life on the reclaimed land.
Minnesota Tribes Represented
Many activists came from Minnesota tribes, including Anishinaabe, Dakota and other regional nations.
They brought experiences of injustice in the state and demanded better treatment of Native peoples nationwide.
Their participation brought attention to Indigenous issues across the Midwest.
The Government Responds
The U.S. government adopted a hands-off approach, hoping to avoid violence. Officials negotiated sporadically but refused the sale of Alcatraz.
In January 1970, occupier Yvonne Oakes tragically died, leading many original members to leave.
The government later cut power and water to pressure the protestors. In June 1971, federal forces finally removed the last 15 people from the island.
Though the occupation lasted only 19 months, it had massive impact. It launched the modern Indigenous rights movement and inspired many acts of Native civil disobedience.
It brought international awareness to Indigenous struggles and energized activism across Indian Country. The spirit of Alcatraz continues to motivate the fight for Native self-determination today.
- We Hold the Rock - Alcatraz Island (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
- Alcatraz Proclamation and Letter | Indians of all Tribes (December 1969) (historyisaweapon.org)
- When Native American Activists Occupied Alcatraz Island | HISTORY