Alcatraz Occupation Welcome to Indian Land graffiti. Photo: National Park Service

By Lanyie Rhodes, age 12 and IndyKids Staff

In November 1969, Richard Oakes, a Mohawk from New York, led a protest with around 80 Native Americans/Indigenous peoples to the island of Alcatraz about 1.25 miles offshore from San Francisco. The group was made up of members of more than 20 tribes from across Turtle Island, otherwise known as the United States.

Many people called the island “The Rock,” which for around 30 years was a maximum-security federal prison. But it was abandoned in 1963 because the prison was deemed too expensive for it to continue running.

Richard Oakes, a key leader in the Native rights movement, started the protest because he thought the island served as a strong symbol of Native American resistance. They were protesting broken treaties, broken promises and the attempted erasure of their culture. They proclaimed, “We Hold the Rock,” and the Alcatraz occupiers called themselves “Indians of All Tribes.”

They claimed Alcatraz by ‘right of discovery’ and offered to buy it for $24 in beads and cloth, which was the price a Dutch colonizer, Peter Minuit, ‘paid’ to Native Americans for New York City’s Manhattan Island over 300 years earlier.

When they arrived, the protesters gave the federal government a list of demands and invited the federal government to join them in formal negotiations. The demands included the return of Alcatraz to Native Americans, as well as enough funding to build, maintain and operate a Native American cultural center and a university.

The occupiers soon organized a system of cooperative governance, where everyone voted on decisions. They set up a school for children and other classes where elders taught Native arts and crafts, such as bead and leather work, wood carving, costume decoration, sculpture, dance and music.

The occupation lasted for about 19 months, until June 11,1971, when the federal government, under the leadership of President Nixon, forcibly removed them. Although the protest was disbanded, this action led to some notable progress in the fight for Native rights, including laws that supported Native American self-determination, recognition, health and education.

As Benjamin Bratt, an actor and Alcatraz occupier, told Mashable, “It’s easy to pass off the Alcatraz event as largely symbolic, but the truth is the spirit and dream of Alcatraz never died, it simply found its way to other fights. … Native sovereignty, repatriation, environmental justice, the struggle for basic human rights — these are the issues Native people were fighting for then, and are the same things we are fighting for today.”

Glossary 

Turtle Island: The name many Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking peoples, mainly in the northeastern part of North America, use to refer to the continent. In various indigenous origin stories, the turtle is said to support the world and is an icon of life itself.

Negotiations- A discussion or dialogue aimed at reaching an agreement.

This part of our coverage: THE REVOLUTIONARY LIBERATION STRUGGLES OF 1969. Read other stories from this series.