On March 8, 1964, a small group of Sioux made landfall on Alcatraz Island, which had been abandoned as a prison the previous year. They invoked the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie in reclaiming the surplus federal property as Native land, and spent a few hours singing and drumming before being removed by federal marshals.
That occupation was small and brief, but was noticed by Native Americans across the country who were suffering under federal policies of relocation and termination, by which the government was encouraging Native Americans to leave reservations for cities and seeking to end federal recognition of tribal sovereignty.
As various proposals were floated in San Francisco about what should be done with the disused island prison, an idea took hold among local Native groups — occupy the island and demand it be turned over and transformed into a Native American cultural centre.
On November 9, 1969, dozens of Native Americans of numerous tribes gathered at Pier 39 and read a proclamation claiming Alcatraz by right of discovery and offering to buy it for $24 in beads and cloth.
They then took a symbolic sailboat cruise around the island. Several of the passengers dove overboard and attempted to swim to the island. One jumper made it, but the others were swept away by the tide and had to be rescued.
Later that night, 14 activists convinced local fishermen to take them to the island, where they spent the night.
These were just trial runs for the true occupation, which began on Nov. 20 when nearly 80 Native Americans came ashore in the middle of the night.
Composed of members of more than 20 tribes from across the continent, the occupiers called themselves Indians of All Tribes.
One of the most prominent of the organizers was Richard Oakes, a well-spoken and charismatic Mohawk from New York. He had assembled Native Americans from around the Bay Area, as well as dozens of Indigenous students from UCLA. As soon as they made landfall, the occupiers set up an elected council and went to work organizing the day-to-day running of the island, assigning jobs and making decisions by unanimous consent.
They released a list of demands, and invited the federal government to join them in formal negotiations.
Initially, the government demanded that the occupiers leave, and set up a Coast Guard blockade to prevent supplies from reaching them. The government later switched to a strategy of non-interference, hoping that by waiting long enough the occupation would collapse on its own.
The occupation was widely and excitedly covered by the media, and generated broad popular interest in the grievances the occupiers were expressing — broken treaties, broken promises and the erasure of their culture. Demonstrations and occupations popped up around the country in solidarity.
Celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda visited the occupied island, and rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival donated a boat to the cause.
John Trudell, a Santee Sioux, created a pirate radio station on the island, broadcasting as Radio Free Alcatraz.
The island reached its highest population on Nov. 27, 1969, when some 400 Native Americans gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving.
After Oakes’ departure, leadership struggles intensified as various factions tried to push forward their agendas and visions for an autonomous society.
Many of the earlier occupiers left to return to school and many of the new occupiers were more preoccupied with feeding their drug addictions than attaining the original aim of the occupation. Non-Indigenous hippies and drug users began showing up but were eventually barred from staying overnight.
In secret negotiations, the federal government, impatient to have the island cleared out, offered Fort Mason in San Francisco as an alternative site for a Native American cultural centre.
The occupiers refused, and the government decided to apply more pressure.
Electricity and telephone service was cut off, followed by water.
On the night of June 1, 1971, a fire broke out which destroyed several buildings. The government blamed the occupiers, who blamed government infiltrators. The number of occupiers dwindled.
A few days later, with President Nixon’s approval, the feds made their move.
On June 11, 1971, nearly 18 months after the start of the occupation, federal marshals came ashore and evicted the last 15 occupiers.
Though the end of the occupation felt like a defeat, the entire effort had a tremendous impact far beyond simple awareness-raising.
As a direct result of the occupation, federal policies of relocation and termination were abandoned and numerous laws were passed to support Native American self-determination, recognition, health and education. Tribal lands across the country were returned, from Mount Adams in Washington to 48,000 acres around Blue Lake in New Mexico.
Many of the veterans of the occupation went on to continue their activism and participated in further demonstrations, including the 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters and the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973.