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The Occupation of Alcatraz, 1969

The Following is a rough Chronology of Events of the Occupation

  • Native American activists in the San Francisco Bay Area seek a new space for Native Americans after the loss of the San Francisco Indian Center by fire on October 10th, 1969. Plans are quickly drawn up to claim Alcatraz Island by citing the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Sioux, which returned all retired, abandoned and out-of use federal lands to Native groups. When Alcatraz Penitentiary closed in 1963, the U.S. declared the island as surplus federal property and Red Power activists used the language of the treaty to thus claim it as Indian land.

  • On March 9, 1964, Richard McKenzie and other Sioux occupied Alcatraz for four hours but were quickly removed by the Coast Guard.

  • On November 9, 1969, a second group of activists returned.  Traveling by boat, Richard Oakes (Mohawk), Jim Vaughn (Cherokee), Joe Bill (Eskimo), Ross Harden (Ho-Chunk) and Jerry Hatch were delivered close to the island. The group then jumped overboard, swam to shore, and claimed the island by right of discovery.

Photograph by Ilka Hartmann

  • Later that day, a larger group made their way to the island and fourteen stayed the night. The next day, the group proclaimed the island Indian Land by right of discovery and Richard Oakes delivered a speech, now known as the Alcatraz Proclamation to the General Services Administration who then oversaw the island. The Proclamation declared Alcatraz Island as Indian Land under the Treaty of Fort Laramie and listed a number of grievances with the U.S. government. In the Proclamation, Oakes announces the intent to turn the Island into a refuge for Native Americans by building a Native American Studies center, spiritual center, museum, and other facilities dedicated to assisting Native Americans. The group were escorted off of the Island shortly after the Proclamation was issued.
  • On November 20, 1969, American Indians again landed on Alcatraz Island despite an attempted Coast Guard blockade. The group of 79 Indians included students, married couples and six children and called themselves the Indians of All Tribes. This is when the occupation begins in earnest.

  • The Occupation lasts from November 20th, 1969 to June 11th, 1971. During this time, hundreds flock to the Island to show support for the cause.

  • The Occupation slowly begins to break down the larger it grows due to a lack of supplies and leadership. Despite an initial no drugs and alcohol on the Island policy, the new waves of protesters, many of which were non-Native, defy the policy. Richard Oakes and his family leave the Island on January 3rd, 1970 following an accident in an abandoned building that claimed the life of 13 year old Yvonne Oakes.

  • The Protest ended on June 11th, 1971 when the Coast Guard forcibly removed the remnants of the Occupation, which had by then dwindled due to a lack of supplies and support.

  • The Occupation, despite not meeting the original goals of the protest, was still considered successful as it ended the US government's policy of termination and launched a wave of protests across America in the name of Native American rights. Credited with starting the Red Power Movement, the Occupation of Alcatraz was one of the most visible protests for Native American Rights and a number of subsequent protests emerged across America as a result, most notably the Pit River Tribe's efforts against PG&E.