When Native Americans Occupied Alcatraz

By | June 5, 2022

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Alcatraz Island was occupied of by 89 American Indians who called themselves Indians of All Tribes from November 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971. The occupation was forcibly ended by the U.S. government. Source: (Getty).

With the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, the Black Hills were set aside for the Sioux, but according to the Indians of All Tribes (IOAT), the treaty had another provision: that all retired, abandoned, or out-of-use land was to be returned to the Indians who once occupied it.

Alcatraz Became Surplus Land In 1963

Alcatraz penitentiary was closed on March 21, 1963, and the government declared it surplus federal property in 1964. Belva Cottier, who had read about the closure, organized an occupation and court action with the goal of obtaining the title to the island. That initial occupation occurred on March 8, 1964. The 40 protestors included Sioux activists, photographers, reporters, and a lawyer. At this point, the protestors offered 47 cents per acre, for a total of $9.40 for the entire island, and they stated that the federal government could continue to use the Coast Guard lighthouse on the island. After only four hours, the protestors left as they were threatened with being charged with a felony. 

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The water tower. Source: (Wikipedia).

The Second Occupation

As there were talks about the potential for commercial development on Alcatraz, concern grew for the availability of the island, and that coupled with the loss of the San Francisco Indian Center and tension with the U.S. government led to plans for immediate takeover. On October 9, 1969, Adam Fortunate Eagle planned a symbolic occupation, which only lasted a short while before the Coast Guard removed them. Later that day, 14 occupiers led by Richard Oakes arrived and stayed overnight; the following day, the claimed the right of discovery in a letter written by Fortunate Eagle to the General Services Administration. They then left Alcatraz.

Establishing The Community

This group was followed by a group of 89 American Indians who headed for Alcatraz on November 20, 1969. Although a Coast Guard blockade stopped most of them from landing, 14 were successful in starting their occupation, which would eventually grow to 400. After they established themselves on Alcatraz, the occupiers set up an elected council. They managed to set up a school, a daycare, and a health clinic with both doctors and nurses and everyone had a job. Native and non-Natives alike brought supplies to the island, even though the Coast Guard made it challenging to do so. To get supplies across the bay, they used canoes, and dropped supplies which were then carried up steep ladders.