Native American Occupations of Alcatraz

Since the government basically abandoned the island in 1963, there have been three different occasions when the island has been occupied by Indians, culminating in the third which lasted from 20 November 1969 to 11 June 1971.

Many of the things they were attempting to do was to unify and assert their sense of identity as Indians and to protest the conditions many had to live under on reservations or due to Indians being lured to the big city with promises of jobs and support then receiving neither. Also the way the government handled " Indian Affairs" and programs such as "Termination" which was an attempt to end recognition of tribes. It was also the 60s and a growing awareness among all minorities about social causes was in the air.

First Occupation
The first took place on 8 March 1964. A group of five Sioux "took" the island and claimed it under the terms of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under it, the Sioux were promised surplus government land. Unfortunately for the group, the Sioux have no ancestral claims that far west. It lasted about four hours, while the group drummed and sang. They were then escorted away by Federal Marshals. The idea of taking the island and using it to the benefit of the Indian population was its most significant aspect.

Second Occupation
Five years later, that idea surfaced again and led to another action. After the burning down of the San Francisco Indian Center, a group of Indians made a proposal to the San Francisco City Council to turn the island into an American Indian Center (that year, the council had been listening to ideas about what to do with the property). It was turned down in favor of more "commercial" ideas. A group of Indian college students, led by Fortunate Eagle and Richard Oakes, feeling they needed to make a statement at the very least, arranged for boats to take them to the island for the occupation.

About 100 Indians showed up (about 80 from UCLA). Since the group consisted of members of several tribes, they named themselves "Indians of All Tribes." Problem is, the boats didn't show. They read from a proclamation (see below) stating that they claimed the island ("discovered" in the sense the Americas were "discovered" by the Europeans) and then offered $24 in cloth and glass beads (alluding to the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch for cloth, beads, and other trinkets worth 60 guilders in 1626—once worked out as being the equivalent to $24, though it was probably somewhat higher).

The group managed to get another boat which was able to take some of them around the island, during which a few dove overboard to swim ashore, Oakes among them. While few made it and some needed rescue by the Coast Guard, fourteen were able to successfully land, later that night. They were escorted off the island the next day after being found by the caretaker (playing with his guard dog). They were treated well and no one was prosecuted.

Third Occupation
That set the stage for the final occupation that lasted nearly eighteen months. Around 2 AM on 20 November 1969, about 80 Indians from nearly 20 tribes (including Oakes) landed three boats on Alcatraz. The caretaker claimed to be one-eighth Cherokee and allowed them use of the warden's residence.

The occupiers organized into an elected council and handed out jobs for the care and maintenance (and security, though it wasn't a military action by any means). Decisions required unanimous consent of the people.

Their motto became "We hold The Rock." Over the course of the occupation, some 5600 Indians spent at least some time on the island (some just for a day or so). One proposal was for $299,424 for a grant that would make the island into a cultural park and social/education center for Indians. It was denied ("unrealistic"). Other demands included the deed to the island, an Indian university, a cultural center, and a museum. Government negotiators refused and demanded they leave the island.

A pirate radio station broadcast from the island—"Radio Free Alcatraz"—through the help of local stations. (The head of the station and his wife had the only baby born on the island during the occupation. They named him Wovoka after the originator of the messianic Ghost Dance movement, seeing their son as symbolic of a rebirth of the Indian.) The response to the Indian occupation was very positive. Food and provisions were sent in to them, as well as money. Among those supporting the group was The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival (who played a concert for them on a boat, then donated the boat), Jane Fonda, and Marlon Brando. Not to mention other Indians, regular citizens, and even some politicians.

As 1970 rolled around, a certain amount of dissent and factionalism began to arise. Organization began to break down. Also, non-Indians from the San Francisco hippie population began to filter in, creating more disorganization. Other students left to return to school. In early January, Oakes' teenage daughter fell three flights down a stairwell and died. He left soon after, leaving a larger hole in the organizational system.

For the most part, the government did not interfere directly with the Indians and chose to wait them out. There was an offer to let them have another Fort if they left the island. But that offer was refused. They had come too far not to get what they desired. Deciding against an armed invasion, but determined to evacuate the island, the government took away the barge that provided fresh water for the people and turned off the electricity. A few days later, on 1 June 1971, fires broke out and burned some historical buildings. Members of the occupiers claimed it was the government trying to discredit them to take away their support. It isn't clear who was to blame, but since the buildings were not next to each other, the Indians reasoned it was deliberate and started by government agents.

The occupation was winding down by then and many had already left the island. Looking to earn money for food supplies, some people stripped copper wire and tubing from the buildings to sell (three members were eventually found guilty of the act). Public opinion was waning, as well. There were even stories published (without much substantiation) of beatings and assaults. One case was prosecuted.

On 11 June 1971, US Marshals removed the last remaining Indians (fourteen or fifteen) from the island.

Whether directly or indirectly (because of the way it brought the issues to people's attention), in the years that followed programs were enacted to better serve Indians in health and education and to promote self-determinism (how well this all worked in practice is another matter but it was a small step in the right direction). During the eighteen months, President Richard Nixon signed the papers ending "Termination" policy.

The occupation also was a spark that led to Indian movements throughout the United States and several of the people involved became activists following it. The Indians didn't achieve their main goals but were able to call attention to many things that needed to be and helped galvanize themselves in an effort to work for change.

Alcatraz was symbolic in the rebirth of Indian people to be recognized as a people, as human beings, whereas before, we were not. We were not recognized, we were not legitimate...but we were able to raise not only the consciousness of other American people, but our own people as well, to reestablish our identity as Indian people, as a culture, as political entities.
LaNada Boyer, (Shoshone-Bannock) student leader/occupier


PROCLAMATION TO THE GREAT WHITE FATHER (NOVEMBER, 1969)

We, the Native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.   We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealing with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and thereby offer the following treaty:

We will purchase Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set down by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.   We know that $24 in trade goods for these 16 acres is more than what was paid when Manhattan was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years.  Our offer of $1.24 per acres is greater than the 47 cents per acre the white man is now paying California Indians for their land.

We will give the inhabitants of this land a portion for their own to be held in trust by the American Indian Affairs and by the Bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity—for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea.   We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living.   We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state.   We offer this treaty in good faith and wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with all white men.

We feel that this so called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian Reservation, as determined by the white man's own standards.   By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian Reservations in that:

1. It is isolated from modern facilities and without adequate means of transportation.
2. It has no fresh running water.
3. It has no adequate sanitation facilities.
4. There are no oil or mineral rights.
5. There is no industry and so unemployment is very great.
6. There is no health care facility.
7. The soil is rocky and non-productive and the land does not support game.
8. There are no educational facilities.
9. The population has always exceeded the land base.
10. The population has always been held prisoners and kept dependent upon others.

Further, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation.   This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.

What use will we make of this land?

Since the San Francisco Indian Center burned down, there is no place for Indians to assemble and carry on tribal life in the white man's city.   Therefore, we plan to develop on this island several Indian institutions.   1. A center for Native American studies. 2 An American Indian Spiritual Center, 3. An Indian Center of Ecology, 4. A great Indian Training School, and 5. An American Indian Museum.

In the name of all Indians, therefore, we claim this island for our Indian nations, for these reasons, we feel this claim is just and proper, and that this land should rightfully be granted to us as long as the rivers shall flow and sun shall shine.

Indians of All Tribes

(Sources: www.nativepeoples.com , www.nps.gov/alcatraz/indian.html, the quote and proclamation are from ishgooda.nativeweb.org)

"Alcatraz" is archaic Spanish for "Pelican," a shortening of "La Isla de los Alcatraces," the name given by Juan Manuel de Ayala when he landed there in 1775. The island is nondescript, then white-colored because it was covered in pelican dung.

Alcatraz is in the middle of California's San Francisco Bay. Its inaccessibility has given it a number of lives: it was first a lighthouse station, then a military installation, then military prison, then federal prison, then point of confluence for shelter-seeking Native American tribes (see above).

There are ghost stories, of course. The now-defunct prison, with its cells smaller in area than some dinner tables, contains enough congealed sadness to make you believe anything.







Seeing no use in a dung-sheathed protuberance of the seafloor, the Mexican government gave the island free-of-charge to developer Julian Workman in the summer of 1846 with the condition that he build a lighthouse on it. You can see it in the old pictures. Astute readers will note that this was a few years before the US claimed California, then a northern extension of Mexico. The US would take the coast, of course; the island came at a cost of three thousand dollars and a legal battle. Then the military moved in.

In 1850, the US Army built a citadel into the island, one level below ground to serve as a point of cover. It was to work in tandem with two other fortifications, one built on each lip of the bay, to defend the inlet from the growing Confederate threat (gold rush etc.) The hundred cannons the Army later put in--too many even to activate concurrently--made Alcatraz the most fortified military complex on the west coast. None of the cannons were ever fired.

Because the island saw almost no action, the citadel doubled as a barracks for military prisoners, mostly Confederate sympathizers. In 1909 the island's second most obvious purpose was realized when the citadel was demolished and replaced with a dedicated military prison; the captives built the prison and then lived in it.






With this work I hope to bring that ideal one small step nearer, but no one realizes so well as I how far short of my goal I have fallen. The road stretches into the dim future, far beyond the possible accomplishments of any single lifetime, but if in this I have been able to point the direction and inspire others to carry on from the point where I have left off, I shall consider my efforts worthwhile.

Robert F. Stroud — The Birdman of Alcatraz
June 1, 1937
Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds


The Birdman was one of Alcatraz' many famous contents, along with Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelley. A much up-played aspect to the prison's inmate roster is that it was made up of felons too unruly to be held captive at other facilities. Interestingly, Alcatraz' modest capacity of about 600 was never met, and inmates at other prisons were known to request transfer there.

The cells are five foot by nine foot. None of them are against perimeter walls--not that it matters, since the island does not have beaches.

The daily routine reads like a military boot camp itinerary where everyone's trying to kill each other. Wake up. Shave. Clean your cell. Stand in silence. Breakfast. Eating utensils counted. Work. Eight-minute smoke break. Lunch. Work. Dinner. Eating utensils counted. There were no free moments between sleep.

The hole needs little introduction. A drain in the floor set the tone for the next 24 hours.

By way of sporting, the inmates were allowed to build a baseball field on a plateau left over from previously abandoned building efforts. They even had uniforms. Boxing matches, in which participants were determined by guards happened periodically, and were a worthy spectacle not only for the inmates but for civvies willing to take the ferry over.






Unsurprisingly, escape was attempted.

I know a pretty good number of people who've been to prison. It tends to shame them that they can make anything out of anything, particularly food. Ever made a birthday cake out of Twinkies and cocoa paste? Cooked a brick of ramen noodles with a cushion and your ass? You don't think of these things. 

Most of the fourteen escape attempts were your predictable take-hostages-and-run-for-the-ocean fare. But one attempt, involving a tunnel and papier-mâché dummies (yes), was particularly harrowing.

In a utility corridor behind the cells of cellblock B there exists, still, a tunnel, chiseled out of the water-softened concrete. The tool: a drill, assembled from a spoon veneered with soldered silver and a vacuum-cleaner motor. For reference, drilling through concrete is hard work when you have the right shit to do it.

Work was done during music hour, under the drone of accordions. The talents of Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin would have been better-applied, one imagines, in a room overlooking a launchpad, but no matter. In their path they left false walls and attachments, including rivets carved from soap (yes). For the life raft: raincoats. The dummies stood guard in the cells during work. Shreds of the raincoats they had used as life rafts turned up on Angel Island. The men themselves, unheard of thence. They had done so much; it was the closest anyone ever came to reaching the coast.







Re: Ghosts:

Some see emotion as a substance that leaves the body and survives. In this way, sorrow becomes an imprint.

The island was a subject of folklore even before the prison. Native Americans avoided it, believing it to hold evil spirits.

The most chilling contemporary story comes from the hole. An inmate screamed that glowing eyes were there with him. The guards, being in the occupation of fielding lies and managing pressurized violence, left him. They found him dead the next morning, with a hand-shaped bruise around his throat; autopsy revealed that the strangulation wasn't self-inflicted. The guards counted an extra prisoner that day.

The glowing eyes made other appearances, none of them causing death. As in any haunted place, there are cold spots, moaning from inside the walls. Regiments of soldiers sometimes appear. There are crashes. The old lighthouse itself, built by Julian Workman and long since demolished, is said to appear in the fog and shine its light on the island with a whistling sound. Mediums go in and are seen to have feelings.






Today Alcatraz is a US National Park. You can take a ferry over, take in the sights, learn the history, buy postcards.

The prison's historical specs:

 

  • 1775: Sighted by the Europeans
  • 1846: Lighthouse appears
  • 1848: Acquired by the US
  • 1858: First Army garrison completed
  • 1868: Designated long-term facility for military prisoners
  • 1907: Designated US Military prison
  • 1912: Main cell block completed
  • 1934: Graduated to Federal prison
  • 1963: Penitentiary Closed

The US National Park Service provides a fair resource for those wishing to travel to the island.



Sources

Wikipedia. "Alcatraz Island." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcatraz_Island.

The Shadow Lands. "Alcatraz." http://theshadowlands.net/famous/alcatraz.htm.

Alcatraz History. http://www.alcatrazhistory.com/mainpg.htm.

US National Park Service. "Alcatraz Island." http://www.nps.gov/alca/.

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