Alcatraz Island means a lot of things to a wide variety of people. To many, it was a prison. To others, simply a fun and interesting national park. To birds, it’s a bathroom. And to a largely forgotten-about band of Native American activists, for a few years – Alcatraz was a home.
After it’s days as a penal facility had ended and prior to it’s modern day position as a famed tourist attraction (the only one in America where you can buy churros with loose cigarettes you smuggled in via various body cavities), Alcatraz sat largely dormant, floating harmless in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
All of that changed of November 20th, 1969 (nice) when a charged up group of Native Americans and their allies muscled their way onto the island and claimed The Rock as their own for almost two years.
If you are like most people, you probably read that paragraph and said “Seriously? How have I never heard about that?” That is why we are writing this piece! The story is a truly incredible one that has sadly been lost to it’s unfortunate pre-internet time-frame. But seriously, try to imagine Twitter’s reaction to this.
“Mayday! Mayday! The Indians Have Landed!”
The above subhead (cool insider writer jargon) was what the lone security guard stationed on Alcatraz Island uttered into his radio microphone as the ships made it to shore. The word was out that an occupation was brewing which caused a Coast Guard blockade to form around the perimeter of the island. But despite their best efforts on that day, 14 were able to get through beginning their two year long squat upon the rock.
To get everyone caught up to speed as fast as possible, let’s get right into the guts of the matter. In 1886, the United States signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie part of which promised to give back any retired government-owned land back to various Native American tribes. And almost 100 years later, this was clearly not happening.
Following the closure of Alcatraz as a prison in 1962, the government-owned island sat unused and vacant. This group of Native-led protesters felt this most public site was, not only rightfully theirs to take back under the treaty, but also the most visible and newsworthy plot of unused government land to possess to help draw attention to their cause.
As media descended upon the island to cover this thrilling story, soundbites from the prepared group of occupiers started coming out fast and furious. Richard Oakes, a member of the Mohawk tribe who served as one of the occupation’s leaders said: “We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for $24 and glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.”
With the expressed purpose of building a nation laid down as the group’s mission statement, the occupation began with over 80 taking to the land just a week later on Thanksgiving Day.
A Rock Worth Mining
In short time the group had set up a small school for children who had been brought to the island by their occupying parents, a radio station for transmitting their message and a small but effective ferry system for bringing much needed food across to the desolate island.
Their mission even gained sympathy in the halls of Congress where less than a month into the occupation on December 23rd, a bill was presented in the House to give Alcatraz Island back to the native population. The bill lacked traction and ultimately failed to make its way to Richard Nixon’s White House.
The movement carried on. At its peak, over 400 people were living on the remote crag. One of the occupiers was Grace Thorpe, daughter of multi-sport legend Jim Thorpe. Through her connections, she was able to get esteemed luminaries like Marlon Brando, Jonathon Winters and Dick Gregory to visit the island. Additionally as a fun footnote, now-famous actor Benjamin Bratt lived on the island as a child when his mother Eldy brought him and his brother Peter over.
But the energetic and motivated occupation took a sad turn when the young daughter of organizer Richard Oakes fell and struck her head on the corner of an exposed brick slab, splitting her head open. They took her off the island where she later died. Following her funeral, Oakes and his wife Annie Marufo left the island causing the beginning of the occupation’s collapse.
A Movement On Shaky Ground
Following Oakes departure, a leadership void filled the island. Where Oakes had previously served as the defacto leader assigning roles and jobs, internal conflicts over leadership and decision-making began to play a much larger role, as did the growth in non-indiginous supporters who had taken to the island in support of the message. Their presence, while ultimately appreciated, was drowning out the focal point of this occupation: Alcatraz is an island that belonged to the Native Americans and ONLY the Native Americans!
By May of 1971, after multiple attempts to reach a settlement had fallen flat, the government decided to cut off all electrical and telephone access to the island. Soon after, a fire – the origins of which have been long disputed – destroyed numerous buildings on the island. Public sentiment had already turned when an arrow over two feet long stuck a passing by harbor cruise boat and a Coast Guard team was violently turned away as they attempted to fix the light house which guided passing ships.
With power out and buildings burnt, occupiers began to leave in mass. Additionally, the government was able to find their scapegoat and began accusing those left upon the island of stealing and selling copper wire scavenged from the prison. With a mere 15 occupants left on the island, on June 11th, 1971, the Coast Guard forcefully removed the final members of the occupation who had vowed to permanently live on the island.
Leaving a Legacy
One of the lasting, more visible impacts of the Occupation, of which there were many, was that the island became part of the National Park System, giving the land back to the people. While not the land they were promised, it was a big step forward from the government prison from where it began.
Alcatraz Island would not be what it is today,” said occupier Eloy Martinez, “They were going to develop it into a casino, and now it’s a national landmark.”
While Alcatraz may not be the occupied territory those who took refuge on the Rock long dreamed it would be, those who occupied the land were able to project their message louder than they once thought possible. And through their struggle, countless others have gotten to enjoy the beautiful island in the middle of the fog-covered bay.
“The occupation got the world’s attention. It directly affected federal laws, and set a precedent for indian activism. If you look at where the occupiers are now, a lot of them have gone far: some got Ph.Ds or took leadership roles improving communities, and continue to tell their stories.” Martinez continued.
The ‘Traz Lives On
Now, in conclusion, for my own story about The Rock. When I was 13 and living a few hours up I-5 in Seattle, my Mom and I planned a fun field trip to San Francisco. She got me REAL HYPE around going to Alcatraz. Going to Alcatraz was going to be the centerpiece of the whole trip. I was homeschooled that year (and ONLY that year) and we read books on it and watched hella movies (The Rock, Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz) about it. That’s all we talked about for weeks. I couldn’t wait.
We fly down to San Francisco and land at SFO and after renting our car we head straight on down to the Fisherman’s Wharf and WHOOPSIE: all trips were sold out. This was VERY early internet and mom didn’t realize she had to buy tickets in advance and she….was…devastated! I cheered her up and let her buy me some random gift shop crap and then went to a Giants game where the grounds crew was gracious enough to let this weird little boy go on the field and even into the dugout to mingle with a few players
Anyway, she felt super bad about it and 22 years later, I decided to surprise her by flying HER to San Francisco for her birthday and finally took her on our long-promised boat-ride out to Alcatraz.
And yes, I did buy the tickets in advance.