Fifty years ago a group of activists set sail to reclaim Alcatraz Island, ushering in a new era of indigenous activism.
For most people, the word Alcatraz conjures up images of some of the most notorious criminals in American history, like Al Capone or George “Machine Gun” Kelly. During the years (1934-1963) it operated as a maximum-security federal prison, this island off the coast of San Francisco, California, held some of the country’s toughest convicts.
But to Native peoples, this small, oval-shaped island – part of the traditional territory of the coastal Ohlone, Ramaytush and Miwok peoples – carries a different symbolism.
In 1895 – when the island was a fort and military prison – 19 Hopi men served time on Alcatraz for the crime of trying to protect their children from being sent to a federal Indian boarding school, where Native children of all ages were taken from their families and stripped of their indigenous languages, songs, ceremonies, clothing and life-ways. These schools represented a life sentence of their own; forcing generations of indigenous children to assimilate and acculturate.
But, three-quarters of a century later, this structural representation of colonisation came to symbolise something new to Native peoples: Red Power offered a direct challenge to colonisation.
In the early morning hours of November 20, 1969, 89 indigenous men, women and children set sail in three boats from across the bay in Sausalito. They were going to reclaim the by-now abandoned federal prison as Indian land.
The leaders of this movement carried their children, not weapons, when they asserted their legal claim to Alcatraz by “right of discovery” and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, in which it was agreed that retired, abandoned and out-of-use federal land would be returned to Native peoples.
Their newly formed organisation, Indians of All Tribes (IAT), had emerged against the backdrop of a growing anti-Vietnam war movement, countercultural revolutions and hate-centred violence that had laid waste to cities and claimed the lives of political leaders across the United States.
It was led by a charismatic, young former ironworker and Akwesasne Mohawk citizen called Richard Oakes, who was a student at San Francisco State College, and LaNada Means, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Shoshone/Bannock citizen from the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho who had come to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affair’s (BIA) relocation programme but found only lies and broken promises.
It was rare in the 1960s to have a political movement led by a Native woman and a Native man, and it would come to symbolise indigenous feminism. Both made the deliberate choice to bring their families with them as a constant reminder of the true goal of the movement: To protect the next generation.
The occupation drew international media attention and placed Indigenous rights on a global stage.
On Alcatraz, IAT immediately began organising a free Indian community; a model city that spoke to the true potential and aspirations that reside within all indigenous communities – the ability to control our own destiny. Using the skills of the occupiers and the generosity of donors, it set about restoring water, sanitation and electricity to the former prison.
IAT flipped the script on colonisation by creating its own Bureau of Caucasian Affairs, requiring all whites to register with the bureau before setting foot on the island. It also staged a mock trial to hold the federal government responsible for past and contemporary injustices.
By design, the occupation sought to unify indigenous peoples from more than 500 separate and distinct nations across America as well as throughout the Western Hemisphere and Pacific. Throughout the course of the 19-month occupation, it is estimated that more than 10,000 indigenous people visited the island to offer their support.
I first heard of the occupation as an undergraduate student in the early 1990s. I consumed as much information about it as I could, but most of the literature I read interpreted it as a failure as the initial desire to convert the island into an indigenous university and ecological and spiritual centre had never been fulfilled. It also contained little information about Oakes, inspiring me to later begin an 18-year journey to right that wrong by writing his biography.
What I learned in that process was that the occupation was far from a failure. It brought indigenous and non-indigenous people together across the US, encouraged an emerging form of coalition politics and inspired similar movements around the world.
In January 1970, tragedy struck on the island when Yvonne Oakes, the oldest daughter of Richard and Annie Oakes, died after falling from the third floor of a building there. Soon after, the family left the occupation. But Oakes, who had once proclaimed that “Alcatraz was not an island, it was an idea”, never left the idea behind.
He continued to employ the tactics of the occupation elsewhere. From 1970 to 1972, under his leadership, IAT organised several occupations or takeovers. Many of them were successful. The takeover of Fort Lawton, a military base in Seattle that had been declared surplus property, led to the creation of the Daybreak Star Indian Center, while the occupation of a former US Army communications centre in northern California resulted in the site being turned into a Tribal college, or D-Q University.
Coalition politics emerged as one of IAT’s central organising strategies as the movement formed crucial alliances with other groups, like the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets. In the early weeks of the occupation, the Black Panther Party had volunteered to help provide security for the occupiers of Alcatraz, as crowds of spectators began to watch from the docks, and others provided financial assistance and support.
On August 29, 1970, IAT joined the Brown Berets’ sponsorship of a moratorium march in East Los Angeles as an effort to demonstrate against the Vietnam war. Two years later, the Brown Berets, following the example of IAT, orchestrated a takeover of Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles.
A central component of IAT’s message was domestic coalition politics grounded in indigenous discourses of liberation theology with the aim of inspiring a global indigenous rights movement. In this way, the occupation of Alcatraz spoke to a broader effort at decolonisation based on the understanding that other people were also susceptible to and affected by colonisation and oppression.
And the effect was felt around the world. In New Zealand, in 1970, Maori peoples renewed their fight to enforce the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, leading to the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunals. In Australia, during the 1970s, indigenous peoples established the Aboriginal Legal Services and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to protect and enhance their rights. In the late 1970s, Sami peoples in Norway launched a protest against a hydroelectric facility that compromised their homelands. At the same time, Mayans throughout Chiapas and Guatemala advocated for land reform and greater political efficacy. The World Council of Indigenous Peoples was formed in 1974, creating a network of indigenous leaders from around the world. In 1976, Native Hawaiians Walter Ritte Jr and Noa Emmett Aluli, inspired by the Alcatraz takeover, landed on Kaho’olawe Island to reclaim sacred sites that had been levelled by the US military’s use of it as a bombing range.
The occupation of Alcatraz lasted 19 months. During that time, IAT hosted its own nationally-syndicated radio show, Radio Free Alcatraz, from the island. They published a national newsletter that was sent to supporters across the US, employed nurses and the volunteer services of local doctors for a health and wellness clinic on the island, created their own curriculum for the Big Rock School it established there, managed a daily ferry boat operation with their own boat, hosted news conferences and indigenised physical structures on the island with messages like: “Custer Had It Coming,” “You are on Indian Land,” “Red Power” and “Free”. These political statements transformed the walls, doorways, cells and passages of the former prison into an indigenous landscape of liberation.
It did all this as the coastguard patrolled nearby, seizing shiploads of supplies destined for the island and turning away boatloads of supporters.
During the early stages of the occupation, President Richard Nixon, fearful that families might be harmed, had prevented a full law enforcement invasion of Alcatraz. But as the occupation continued, the federal government cut electricity, phone lines and water supplies in an effort to force its end. IAT responded by increasing the number of supply runs for water, acquiring generators and growing its media presence.
In about 2000, after having studied the occupation for years, I finally got a chance to visit the island. Like hundreds of others I waited in line to board the enormous ferry boats that shuttle people there.
Once we had departed from the docks, I quickly made my way to the front of the boat to see where Richard Oakes and four others had jumped into the bay to swim the rest of the way to the island.
I had seen photographs of the political statements (falsely labelled graffiti) that adorn the buildings, signs and physical structures across the island. But it was not until that ferry pulled around it to line up with the dock that I finally got to see it in person – a large sign with the words: “Indians Welcome.”
It sent goosebumps down the back of my neck as I realised that it was the first time I had ever seen a welcome sign in my own country.
That sign helped to decolonise my mind.
While IAT never gained proper title to the island, it did become a national park. A park visited by 1.4 million people a year, whose first stop on the island is to gather beneath that “Indians Welcome” sign and to learn about the occupation of Alcatraz and indigenous rights.
As I walked the brittle grey concrete of the island and overheard other tourists eager to learn about America’s toughest criminals, I smiled, knowing that I was there to learn about America’s toughest Indians.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.