Sunday, November 20, 2016

Native American Heritage Month: Occupying Alcatraz (1969–71)

Aerial View of Alcatraz Island during Indian Occupation, Teepee at Center, 1971
Courtesy National Archives, San Bruno
This month, the California Historical Society honors Native American Heritage Month with a look at the nearly 19-month-long Indian occupation of Alcatraz and the enduring outcome that came to fruition 40 years later. Through imagery and the voices of those who were there, we revisit this event, a defining moment in the Native American civil rights movement.
On November 20, 1969, a group of American Indians successfully breached a Coast Guard blockade and made landfall on Alcatraz Island, shut down by the government six years earlier. The group, which called itself Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) claimed the land by “right of discovery,” and, some said, earlier treaties between Indians and the federal government. Previous attempts to claim Alcatraz in 1964 and the spring of 1969 had led to the Coast Guard blockade.

American Indians Arriving on Alcatraz Island, 1969
Photograph by Vincent Maggiora, San Francisco Chronicle Collection
California Historical Society
"We hold The Rock" 
Richard Oakes, Mohawk, Occupation Leader
Issues around land—its meaning, the rights to it, and the abrogation of those rights—are frequently at the heart of modern land claims, as evidenced by current protests over the oil pipeline near North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands. One hundred years before the occupation of Alcatraz, the Modoc War of 1872–73 in far northern California presaged the later occupation with a similar claim to native lands and a months-long standoff between the native peoples of the Klamath Basin area and the federal government. The site is now memorialized as part of the Lava Beds National Monument.

John Trudell, Spokesperson, American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island, August 1970
Photograph by Barney Peterson, San Francisco Chronicle Collection,
California Historical Society
“If you wanted to make it in America as an Indian, you had to become a hollow person and let them remold you. . . . Alcatraz put me back into my community and helped me remember
who I am. It was a rekindling of the spirit.”
John Trudell, Santee Sioux
At times during the occupation of Alcatraz, there were reportedly hundreds of members of more than 20 tribes on the island. The occupation focused worldwide attention on the ongoing grievances of American Indians and gained support from national celebrities, local residents, labor unions, and other organizations that helped supply the occupiers with food and medical supplies.

American Indian Woman and Child, Alcatraz Island, November 1969
Photograph by Dave Randolph, San Francisco Chronicle Collection,
California Historical Society
 “It was idealistic, and the generosity of the spirit of the people proved that we could change anything. People on the island were very strong about freedom of speech, freedom of dissent.
I saw the importance of dissent in government."
Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Nation
Delivering Food, American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island, November 1969
Photograph by Vincent Maggiora, San Francisco Chronicle collection
California Historical Society
We're Indians, all of us, and we belong on Alcatraz. Indians never had prisons—yet here, in this white man's prison, we have found freedom for the first time.”
La Nada Means, Shoshone Bannock
By 1971 conditions on the island, which had been challenging from the start, deteriorated to the point where, on June 10, armed federal agents stepped in and removed the dozen or so people who remained. In 1972 the island became a national historic site as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Coast Guard Protecting American Indian Property, November 1969
Photograph by Vincent Maggiora, San Francisco Chronicle Collection, 
California Historical Society
"The occupation of Alcatraz exceeded our wildest dreams. It caused major changes in government policies toward Indians."
Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall, Chippewa
FBI and GSA Officers Reassert Federal Ownership of Alcatraz Island, June 11, 1971
Photograph by Vincent Maggiora, San Francisco Chronicle Collection, 
California Historical Society
"It’s easy to pass off the Alcatraz event as largely symbolic, but the truth is the spirit and dream of Alcatraz never died, it simply found its way to other fights.”
Benjamin Bratt, Actor and Alcatraz Occupier (tribe?)
In the aftermath of the occupation, federal policies toward Native Americans changed. Many tribal lands were returned. Native American activism continued, such as the occupation of Wounded Knee (1973). Of more enduring impact, in 2011 “We Are Still Here,” a permanent multimedia exhibition documenting the occupation, opened in the Alcatraz cellblock basement. The exhibition satisfies one of the demands of the occupiers: to establish a cultural center on the island.

“We Are Still Here,” 2011
Courtesy Richard Oaks Multicultural Center
“This exhibit is going to allow us to tell our story behind it. It’s going to allow us to express ourselves in a way that America hasn’t heard our voice. It’s going to give to a lot of tribes that have lost their ways and touch with their own culture, because of assimilation, lack of the language.”
Frankie Rivera, Navajo
Entrance, “We Are Still Here” Exhibition, 2011
Courtesy, San Francisco State News; photo by Philip M. Klasky
 “A lot of native kids don’t know the history of Alcatraz, they know a little bit about it, but they don’t know why we did it, and the reasons that we did it, and how it changed everything, how it started a whole new way of looking at yourself as an indigenous person.”
Michael Horse, Yaqui/Mescalero Apache

The exhibition, which opened on November 20, 2011, was produced by students and faculty at San Francisco State and California State University East Bay. It was esigned to mark the occupation that began on the same day of 1969.  In addition to the exhibition, signs of the occupation are still visible to visitors of Alcratraz today.

Alison Moore
Strategic Initiatives Liaison

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

Alex Arbuckle, “When Native American activists took control of Alcatraz for 18 months”;

“Exhibit on historic 1969–71 occupation of Alcatraz Island Opens,” San Francisco State News;

Meredith May, “American Indians get permanent exhibit at Alcatraz,” San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 21, 2011;

National Native American Heritage Month (2016);

National Park Service, Alcatraz Island, “We Hold the Rock”;

National Park Service, Lava Beds National Monument, “The Modoc War”;

Lulu Orozco, “Alcatraz Exhibit Highlights Native American History, Golden Gate Express, May 1, 2014;

San Francisco State University, Bay Area Television Archive, “Occupation and Ownership of Alcatraz Island”;

Malia Wollan, “Antigovernment Graffiti Restored, Courtesy of Government,” New York Times, Dec. 24, 2012;


Now on View at the California Historical Society

Two exhibitions about Native Americans bridge the past and present:

Native Portraits: Contemporary Tintypes by Ed Drew features portraits of members of the Klamath, Modoc, and Pit River Paiute tribes, some of them descendants of Modoc War survivors.

A selection of Modoc War images by Eadweard J. Muybridge and Louis H. Heller from the California Historical Society collection are some of the objects displayed in Sensationalist Portrayal of the Modoc War, 1872–73.

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