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Occupation Of Alcatraz Island
A boat carrying a group of tribal activists, one named Tim Williams (a chief of the Klamath River Hurek tribe) in full headdress and ceremonial attire, as they approach Alcatraz Island with the intention of reclaiming it from the U.S. government in 1969.
Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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A complete history of Alcatraz Island

From a place of punishment to the cradle of a movement

November 20, 2019 marks 50 years since dozens of activists under the banner Indians of All Tribes evaded the U.S. Coast Guard and attempted to establish an independent indigenous settlement on Alcatraz.

Although unsuccessful, historians acknowledge the occupation, which lasted 19 months, as a seminal moment in the still-ongoing campaign for tribal rights and sovereignty.

The protest also marked the first time in decades that anyone had attempted to use the rocky 22-acre island, located 1.5 miles off San Francisco’s shoreline, for something positive and constructive. Long before the occupation and even before the arrival of European colonizers, the history of Alcatraz is one of foreboding and sanction.


Land to the Ohlone

  • Before Europeans first set their eyes on it, thousands of Ohlone lived in and around the places now called the Bay Area. According to historians with the National Park Service, many used Alcatraz as a place to hunt and forage, but also as a place of “isolation or ostracization” for tribal members, meaning that the punitive history of the island stretches back tens of thousands of years.
  • In 1775, Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into the bay. He didn’t stay long, but while here he conferred the name “Alcatraces” on the island—possibly a reference to the native pelicans. Although there remains some debate still over what bird he was referring to, and also which island he had in mind.

Military takeover and prison years

  • After California joined the union in 1850, the U.S. military saw Alcatraz as a useful defense resource. In 1859, the Army finished construction of a fortress there, installing more than 100 cannons. Along with nearby Fort Point, this served as an intimidating prospect for any attempted coastal invasion of California. However, naval threats never manifested.
  • The Army began using Alcatraz as a military prison almost right away in 1860, serving as a place of punishment for unruly soldiers. But the site also served to incarcerate civilians, including many indigenous tribal members over the decades. National Park Service reports that “Indian people continued to be confined as prisoners in the disciplinary barracks on the island through [...] the early 1900s.”
  • With the fortifications increasingly outdated, the facility converted to prison use full-time in 1907. The Army demolished the fortress in favor of a new prison building under the unimaginative and severe moniker “U.S. Disciplinary Barracks” in 1915.
  • In 1933, the Army handed the facility over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). With the rise of high-profile celebrity criminals over the past decade, the U.S. government wanted to use Alcatraz’s grim reputation and foreboding isolation as a show of force against the supposed worst of the worst.
Alcatraz Prison
Alcatraz yard and prisoners in the 1940s.
Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images
  • Alcatraz had a fairly small capacity of just 336 people, but according to BOP never housed more than 275 inmates at any given time—less than one percent of the nation’s prison population.
  • BOP notes that the island facility served, essentially, as a “prison for prisons.” Inmates who got into trouble or were considered too difficult for other facilities ended up in Alcatraz as a way to break them down through strict discipline. Most prisoners eventually cycled back to landlocked facilities after they’d been sufficiently cowed—average time on “The Rock” was five years.
  • Between 1936 and 1963, Alcatraz saw 14 escape attempts involving 36 inmates. Of these, 23 men ended up recaptured, and eight died the attempt—two drowned, the other six shot. Officially, the remaining five prisoners are designated “missing and presumed drowned.”
  • The island did duty as a federal prison for just 29 years. The decision to shut down on March 21, 1963 stemmed partly from the fact that it cost more than three times as much to maintain the remote facility as similar land side prisons, and there were worries that the facility would have to be rebuilt because it was aging and seismically unsafe.
  • After the closure, the Rock sat abandoned, empty of federal encroachment for the first time in over 100 years. There was talk of redeveloping the site and creating a new landmark, but the island and its facilities lay almost wholly dormant until the occupation began in 1969.
  • Before the more famous 1969 attempt, Sioux activists descended on the island on March 9, 1964, but only for a few hours.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
A sign greets visitors as they arrive at Alcatraz Island, which still bears the graffiti left by American-Indian activists who occupied the island.
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The occupation

  • On November 20, 1969, 78 activists—among them actor Benjamin Bratt, when he was only five years old—settled on the abandoned penitentiary and issued a message to the federal government: “We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government—to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit’s land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian. We do not fear your threat to charge us with crimes on our land. We and all other oppressed peoples would welcome spectacle of proof before the world of your title by genocide. Nevertheless, we seek peace.”
  • The island’s new inhabitants, dubbed “Indians of All Tribes,” offered to purchase it for the sum of $24, to be paid “in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.” Their famous proclamation noted that the inhospitable conditions of the derelict prison “resembles most Indian reservations,” particularly in that “the population has always been held as prisoners,” deploying the island’s dreary history as a larger indictment.
  • Richard Oakes, one of the leaders of the movement, proclaimed “Alcatraz is not an island; it’s an idea.” The hope of establishing a permanent tribal settlement hinged on the concept that those arriving to San Francisco via ship would encounter Alcatraz first and then be “reminded of the true history of this nation.”
  • By December, the All Tribes group invited each “American Indian nation, tribe or band from throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico” to meet together on Alcatraz Island to help organize what they planned to be a mass, independent, tribally diverse settlement:

We realize that there are more problems in Indian communities besides having our culture taken away. We have water problems, land problems, “social” problems, job opportunity problems, and many others.

[...] We realize too that we are not getting anywhere fast by working alone as individual tribes. If we can gather together as brothers and come to a common agreement, we feel that we can be much more effective, doing things for ourselves.

  • The movement lasted for 19 months, eventually driven out after the feds cut off electricity and means of resupplying the settlers. US marshals removed the last 15 residents by force on June 11, 1971.
Indians Voluntarily Surrender
Activists voluntarily surrendering after the federal government shut off water and electricity.
Photo via Getty Images
  • The U.S. government created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, folding the island into its purview. In 1973, the general public was allowed to tour the remaining facilities for the first time—the National Park Service reports that the island saw more than 50,000 visitors the first year, and it’s remained one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions ever since.

The end of the 1969 occupation was not the end of the tribal presence, as Native Americans regularly hold religious observations on Alcatraz, including the twice-yearly Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony on Indigenous People’s Day (still officially called Columbus Day) and Thanksgiving (termed “Unthanksgiving” for these purposes).

Though the occupiers did not achieve their stated goals, historians and later activists refer to the Alcatraz occupation as “the cradle of the modern Native American civil rights movement” and a seminal moment in history.

In the context of the larger story of the island, the occupation marked the first time in over a century and perhaps in many centuries that anyone attempted to put the land there to use for anything other than punishment and isolation, breaking a punitive cycle that extended back before Europeans first sighted the bay.

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