The Occupation of Alcatraz: When Native Americans Reclaimed The Rock

Written By Wise Healthy n Wealthy

Did you know that in 1969, a group of activists took control of Alcatraz Island and occupied it for over a year and a half?

The late sixties in the US saw a wave of activism from Native American protesters. Discriminated against and driven from their land by the white settlers, they demanded better treatment and education around Native American issues.

Alcatraz Island, just off the coast of San Francisco, played host to one of the most audacious acts of defiance the country had ever seen.

Here’s what happened.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie: A Load of Lies?

Our story begins a few years previously on March 9th 1964. Five Sicangu Lakota Indians claimed Alcatraz as Indian land and occupied it for several hours. Their rationale?

The Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Signed in 1868 between US and the Lakota tribe in 1868, this treaty stated that all retired, abandoned, or out of use federal land was to be returned to the Indigenous people who once occupied it.

Alcatraz prison closed in March 1963, and the land was no longer used by the government. So, the activists, led by Belva Cottier, claimed the land as Indian under the treaty. The occupation lasted only four hours, but it undoubtedly inspired the events of five years later.

We Hold The Rock

Citing the Fort Laramie Treaty once again, a Native American man named Richard Oakes laid claim to Alcatraz Island and planned an occupation. This was a far cry from the five-person, four-hour sit-in of 1964.

Oakes was able to recruit almost a hundred American Indians, including women and children, and he led the planning and execution of the landing.

Several attempts were made throughout November 1969 to land on the island without much success. Such was their determination that Oakes and four others even jumped overboard from a yacht and attempted to swim for the island at one point.

After a few exploratory attempts, the newly established Indians of All Tribes (IAT) set a date of November 20th to begin the occupation.

The day came, and eighty-nine American Indians sailed across San Francisco Bay under cover of night. Coastguard ships managed to blockade some of the craft, but enough got through.

Image Credit: Loco Steve, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

20 November 1969: The Occupation of Alcatraz Began

For a while, everything went brilliantly. Oakes was a charismatic and smart leader. The occupiers elected a council and ran, among other things, a functioning day care, school, laundry, and security force.

The occupation garnered national coverage, and the IAT used the attention to demand complete control over the island.

They wanted to turn it into a Native American cultural center that would, among other things, offer the tuition of Native American studies. The occupiers made so much noise that President Nixon himself responded.

At its peak, the island’s population grew to almost 600. The federal government felt unable to act because the occupiers were so popular across the nation. It seemed like the occupation may last forever.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be…

The Occupation’s Downfall

On January 3rd, 1970, Richard Oakes’ stepdaughter Annie fell to her death on the island in a tragic accident. Beset with grief, the Oakes family left Alcatraz.

Lacking a strong leader, the blossoming society quickly broke down. There were drug issues, with hippies from the mainland frequenting the island, and the occupiers quickly faced problems with their water and electricity supply.

In the summer of 1970, a fire broke out and destroyed several historic buildings.

Running out of food, they allegedly began stripping copper from the prison buildings and selling it as scrap metal. Three occupiers were found guilty of selling stolen copper, and the press began to turn. Negative stories kept appearing in the papers, and public support for the occupiers evaporated.

In January 1971, there was a crash between two oil tankers a little way off Alcatraz Island. The government blamed the occupiers. They hadn’t maintained a lighthouse or foghorn during their occupation.

Flimsy as this excuse was, it was enough to kick-start a removal effort.

On June 10th, when the FBI had determined there would be minimal resistance remaining, marshals and police took control of Alcatraz Island. They found only six men, five women, and four children remaining from a resistance that once numbered in the hundreds.

Successes and Impact

Though the occupation of Alcatraz eventually met its demise, it definitely wasn’t a failure. The story hit national news and lent strength to causes Native Americans were fighting for across the country.

In fact, during the occupation, President Nixon signed over 48,000 acres of land in New Mexico to the Taos Indians. Emboldened by the daring actions of Oakes and the IAT, Native Americans and activists fought on, eventually bringing an end to the policy of Termination of Indian Tribes.

The actions of the occupiers directly fed into the wider civil rights movement and helped bring about change that is still being felt today.

On every Indigenous People’s Day, hundreds of Native Americans gather on the island to celebrate and pay tribute to the brave activists of yesteryear.




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