Some forty years after a group of protesters — which swelled at one point to 800 people — occupied the island of Alcatraz for 19 months to protest the unfair seizing of Native American lands, a room in the prison's basement is getting a permanent exhibit including video and sound recordings about the occupation. The occupation ended in 1971, after protesters had hoped for almost two years to turn the island into an American Indian university or cultural center.

Richard Oakes led a group of protesters by chartered boat to occupy Alcatraz in November 1969, which had been abandoned by the government since the prison closed in 1963. They issued a proclamation of demands, offering to purchase the island for $24 in glass beads and red cloth. As the proclamation, which is reproduced for the exhibit, states, "A precedent set by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these sixteen acres is more than was paid when Manhattan island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years." (Read more about the occupation via PBS.)

The gathering swelled by hundreds, including assorted hippies who moved onto the island to support the cause. Things started to fall apart after Oakes' 12-year-old stepdaughter died in a fall on the island, and Oakes left the protest in early 1970. Authorities then tried cutting off water and electricity to the island. Several months later, fires broke out destroying several historic structures adjacent to the prison, and eventually in early 1971 the island was cleared of the remaining 15 occupants, and the National Parks Service eventually turned it into a park.

The new American Indian cultural center and exhibit will become a permanent part of the tour of the island. As one occupation alum puts it, "we did get our cultural center after all. It just takes time."


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