The Peaceful Occupation of Alcatraz by a group of American Indians and their supporters occurred 50 years ago this month. In actuality, Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island three times during the 1960s. However, the occupation that started on November 20, 1969 involved the most protestors, lasted the longest and garnered the most public attention. Alcatraz Island served many functions throughout history including a 30-year stint as a maximum-security federal prison that ended in 1963. This closure prompted a small contingent of Sioux activists to come to the island claiming it as Indian land. They cited the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie which proclaimed that all retired, abandoned or out-of-use Federal Lands shall be returned to Native peoples. Without ancestral claim to an island located in the San Francisco Bay, this March 9, 1964 occupation was quickly ended by United States Marshals. The 4-hour attempt, though, inspired another takeover of the island on November 9, 1969. This second group claimed the island by right of discovery, but the small ensemble was subsequently removed by United States Coast Guard.
Less than two weeks later, around 80 individuals of various ages and from diverse Indian communities braved a midnight Coast Guard blockade to occupy the island and call attention to issues of Native American civil rights. To publicize their protest, they formally expressed their demands to the Federal government in an infamous letter titled Proclamation: To the Great White Father and all his people that was signed as Indians of All Tribes. The announcement re-claimed the island for Indian people so that a center for Native American studies, an American Indian spiritual center, an Indian center of ecology, a great Indian training school and an American Indian Museum could be built there. Their initial high hopes for justice were never realized as the government failed to meet any of their demands before having the last of the occupiers forcibly removed on June 11, 1971.
Yet, the efforts of these activists had kept an international spotlight on the plight of Native Americans for nineteen months and pressured Washington to re-evaluate policies. Shortly after the Alcatraz occupation, President Richard Nixon denounced the Eisenhower-era Termination Policy that called for the disbanding of American Indian tribes and the selling of their land. By 1975, President Ford had signed into law the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. This legislation abandoned forced assimilation efforts by the federal government and recognized self-governance by federally-recognized tribes. The Occupation of Alcatraz was a catalyst for increased Native activism and ushered in significant changes to the federal Indian policy.
To honor the 50th anniversary of this important event in American Indian history, the Library and Archives presents a two-part collection spotlight. Below are four selections from the Library collection that consider key moments, individuals and the legacy of the occupation. These titles will be on display in the public reading area of the Library throughout the month of November.
In a special commemoration of this time in history, artifacts from Heard Museum archival collections related to the Occupation of Alcatraz will be on view in the public reading area of the Library and Archives. The display of these rarely seen items is meant to highlight the impact of this notable enterprise and will be available for one day only, Wednesday, November 20, 2019.
Please feel free to visit the Library to review these or any other items of interest in the Library and Archives collections. For more details or additional collection information, click on the link labeled Library Catalog Search located in the pull-down menu of the Library tab on the Heard Museum website.
Fortunate Eagle, Adam and Tim Findley
Heart of the rock : the Indian invasion of Alcatraz
Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, ©2002
Heard call number E93.A37 2002
Thoughts from Alcatraz
Phoenix, Ariz. : Arequipa Press, 1970
Heard call number E93.H33 1970
Johnson, Troy R.
American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island : red power and self-determination
Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, c2008
Heard call number E93.A385 2008
Johnson, Troy R. (editor)
Alcatraz, Indian land forever
Los Angeles, Calif. : American Indian Studies Center, University of California, c1994
Heard call number E93.A38 1994