This Day in History: Occupation of Alcatraz Island – November 20, 1969
SAN FRANCISCO — In “100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America,” author Harlan Lebo examines the first moon landing, the Manson family murders, Woodstock, and the birth of the Internet to tell a story of how each event influenced today’s America. While these four events may have altered America in the eyes of Lebo, he failed to examine another important event that happened that same year that changed the lives of American Indians forever: The takeover of Alcatraz Island by a group of 89 students that occurred 50 years ago today.
The event occurred towards the end the 1960s, one of the most tumultuous decades in modern American history. By 1969, the nation had witnessed the assassinations of President John Kennedy, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. The nation was still gripped by the unpopular Vietnam War. And, the nation had endured the Civil Rights Movement, wherein the non-violence methodologies of Dr. King were being challenged by the violent nature of the Black Panthers who preached black power.
By November 1969, young American Indians were taking up the mantra labeled Red Power. On November 20, 1969, a group was called the Alcatraz Red Power Movement, also known as the “Indians of All Tribes” decided to takeover over Alcatraz Island. For almost three decades, Alcatraz Island was home to a federal penitentiary. Called the “Rock,” the penitentiary’s most famous inmate was notorious gangster Al Capone. After the prison closed in 1963, American Indians began to petition the federal government to put it into “Indian land.”
Citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that authorized Indians to settle land unused by the federal government, took boats from San Francisco to Alcatraz. Led initially by Richard Oakes (Mohawk), LaNada Boyer, now LaNada War Jack, (Shoshone-Bannock), and Grace Thorpe (Sac and Fox), who was the daughter of Olympic great, Jim Thorpe, and Tuscarora medicine man, Mad Bear Anderson, the takeover was the beginning of a resurgence in American Indian culture and pride.
Soon after taking Alcatraz Island, the students released a statement to the press, reading in part:
“We have been in this land for thousands of years. After a hundred years as prisoners of this country, we feel that it is time to be free. We have gone to Alcatraz Island to preserve our dignity and beauty and to assert our position with the new weapons we have come to learn how to use…These weapons are the laws and lawyers, and the power of the pen to tell our real story.”
LaNada Jack at Alcatraz Island in 1970
“The Occupation of Alcatraz is one of the most significant benchmarks in the history of the struggle for Native American political sovereignty. Native People took a stand against the colonial powers and reconnected with their lost identities culture and spirituality. The taking of Alcatraz had an international impact with people worldwide,” says Dr. War Jack.
A faded message reading “Indians Welcome” can be seen on the walls of a building on Alcatraz Island. Photo: Tewy
Some historians confuse the takeover of Alcatraz Island as being led by the American Indian Movement that had its origins in Minneapolis-St. Paul during 1968 to fight police brutality against American Indians in the Twin Cities.
War Jack recently recalled how Dennis Banks, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, wrote a letter to the group of students and asked if he could bring members of the American Indian Movement to Alcatraz Island to show solidarity.
The impact of the Occupation of Alcatraz influenced many pieces of legislation during the 1970s that can be traced back to demands made by the 89 students who took the short boat ride from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island.
The Occupation of Alcatraz would last 19 months and 9 days and would change Indian Country forever.
Photograph courtesy of Ilka Hartmann