On this day 50 years ago, some seventy American Indians landed at Alcatraz Island in the dead of night, starting what many believe to be the new dawn of modern-day Native American civil rights activism.
November 20th, 1969 was a day of cultural reckoning. Around 2 a.m. that Thursday evening, 78 individuals — a diverse community, representing 20 tribal groups — stepped off their two maritime vessels, loaded with supplies, and onto the landing dock of the defunct federal prison, for what would become a 19-month occupation of the 22-acre islet.
As recounted by the Chronicle, a lone sea guard addressed in a radio message “Mayday! Mayday! The Indians have landed!,” lending the spark to a national conversation on current-day Native American rights and privileges in an industrialized world. The emboldened group, made up of mostly adults — though six children were among them — stated their occupation of Alcatraz was in defiance of a government they felt had trod on their rights for far too long.
More specifically, the political backstory behind the seizure was because of a 1963 legal settlement that aimed to resolve any yet-decided California Indian land claims against the federal government, rewarding Native Americans a hair over $29M for the loss of an estimated 64 million acres of land they had, at some time in the past, held.
Some months later in March of 1964, five Bay Area Sioux Indians set up home at Alcatraz — which was officially shut down as a federal prison in 1963 — due to an older late-1800’s Sioux Treaty which, to their power, gave them license to claim the island. These Sioux members also offered to buy it from the government for 47 cents an acre, the per-acre value of the multi-million dollar settlement that undermined past Indian land claims. Despite their efforts, the small group was quickly removed from the island by members of the San Francisco Coast Guard.
Since the early 1940s, the government had been slowly, often outside the eyes of the media, both stripping away the rights of indigenous Americans as well as evicting them from the land they rightfully were entitled to inhabit, via a series of Indian termination policies.
This framework of policymaking was predicated around the sole goal of assimilating Native Americans into the capitalist nation where they lived. This line of governing stayed largely in effect from the 40s to the late 60s.
And despite the notion that the Indian Civil Rights Act, generally referred to as “The Indian Bill of Rights,” was passed and brought into law in ‘68, certain injustices against American Indians were still regularly conducted per those antiquated termination and assimilation orders.
That is until the second and successful invasion of Alcatraz came to fruition. But not without more preceding drama, however.
When the federal government offered San Francisco the option to purchase the island, hundreds of proposals were, well, proposed to the city as to how it could best utilize the purchased land. A commission was later established by the city’s Board of Directors to help sift through and make sense of them all.
Plans of having Alcatraz shielded as a state park or a historically preserved green space were among the ideas, but one project brought forth by a lucrative oilman was a favorite among the committee.
The catch? Lamar Hunt, the Texas oilman in question, wanted to see the bit of sea rock transformed into, effectively, an amusement park. Worse off, his scheme wasn’t only endorsed by the Board of Directors, but then-mayor Joseph Alioto also supported Hunt’s idea.
The idea was met with a noticeable amount of backlash, including by one twenty-something activist and advocate for conserving Native American heritage.
Richard Oakes — the spokesperson for what would later be known as the Indians of All Tribes movement on Alcatraz, who at the time was just 27 and had just moved to San Francisco with his wife and five kids – was adamant on safeguarding Alcatraz from further development. He believed that if he had a substantial amount of warm bodies behind him, then perhaps an occupation of Alcatraz would be more successful than the small-numbered one six years prior.
Alas, when American Indian Center on Valencia Street, which he was heavily involved with, was burned down in October of 1969, Oake believed that it was time to give the Alcatraz occupation another chance. In the days and weeks after the center was incinerated, activists for Native American Rights were galvanized to come together, thus lending Oak the needed bodies, primarily made of students, he believed would allow them to successfully settle on the former federal prison’s acreage. And, they did so for over 19 months, leaving their claim on the land on June 11th, 1971.
The pre- and post-years of the occupation of Alcatraz was a time in American history rife with indigenous activism — on and off the big screen, too. In a memorable allusion, Marlon Brando forwent his acceptance speech at the 45th Oscars for Best Actor, per his performance in The Godfather, opting to, instead, have Sacheen Littlefeather, Apache actress and Native American rights and activist, received the award and speak on his behalf.
Despite, even her eloquence and calm, composed candor, she was met with boos, mostly from male audience members.
During the year-plus-long occupation of Alcatraz, the government had a change of heart, eliminating or ratifying some of the assimilation and termination policies that shackled Native Americans. That same spirit of activism still burns bright in strong to this day, with the most current protests at the North Dakota Pipeline evidence of just that.
Alcatraz was adopted as part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, designated as a National Historic Landmark in '86.
Image: Flickr via Chad Teer