On this day in 1969, a curious kind of civil rights action began on a previously deserted island in San Francisco Bay. Fourteen Native American activists, most of them college students, landed on Alcatraz despite a Coast Guard blockade and set up camp on the island. A total of 79 students had set out on the expedition but only these fourteen made it past the blockade. Their leader was Richard Oakes, age 27, a student at San Francisco State University and a member of the Mohawk tribe. Oakes believed passionately in returning sovereignty and self-determination to the first peoples of the United States, and he and his comrades set out to make an example of Alcatraz to that end.
Why Alcatraz? In 1969 all that was there were the crumbling ruins of the federal maximum security prison which had once held the likes of Alvin Karpis, Machine Gun Kelley and (briefly) Al Capone. The prison had closed in 1963 and its remaining inmates moved elsewhere. The island was declared surplus federal property. Under an 1868 treaty, however, unused federal installations had to be returned to Native American peoples. Oakes and the Natives who occupied Alcatraz sought to claim this right. They wanted to build a Native American community center, museum and ecological center on the island. More people, most of them college students, eventually joined the group on Alcatraz.
Native activist Richard Oakes was instrumental in the 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz, as well as many other Native causes of the period.
Actually, the occupation of November 20 was not the first attempt made by Oakes and friends to claim Alcatraz. Earlier in the month a smaller group landed briefly on the island and claimed it by right of discovery before being removed by the Coast Guard. Part of the strategy was to attract national attention to Native American grievances and the struggle to realize full citizenship and equality. The 1960s had seen increasing empowerment and civil rights efforts for African-Amercians, women, the handicapped and LGBT people; now Native Americans felt the time was right to focus that sort of attention on their community. “Red Power” was a catchphrase in the late ’60s the way “Black Power” had become somewhat earlier.
The occupation had some mixed successes. The Nixon Administration chose to negotiate with the occupiers, who set up a very orderly system of work to keep their small community clean, supplied, healthy and busy. Nixon didn’t want to give the entire island to the activists, but the federal government did offer to build a park on the island for the use of Native Americans, which the activists rejected. He ruled out a forcible removal of the students and their families. Into 1970 the occupation achieved its goal of focusing world attention on the various issues of the Native community in the United States.
Alas, it began to fall apart. In January 1970 Oakes’s teenage stepdaughter fell off some concrete steps and died. Oakes and the rest of his family decided to leave Alcatraz, feeling they just couldn’t put their heart into it anymore. Some of the students left with him. Seeing the resolve of the activists starting to ebb, the federal government shut off electricity and water to the island in May. Nevertheless, a few hardy survivors continued to stick it out for more than a year. The Coast Guard finally evacuated the final 15 activists in June 1971.
Traces of the Native American occupation can still be seen on Alcatraz Island to this day.
Although the occupation failed in its attempt to set aside Alcatraz exclusively for Native use, some good did come out of it. The incident accelerated the federal government’s move away from its disastrous termination policy, which was the non-recognition of Native American tribes as sovereign entities in an attempt to encourage tribe members to “assimilate” more fully into American society (as if they were not fully American, indeed the original Americans). Termination was already on the ropes in the early 1960s, but the occupation helped highlight the many problems with it. Congress passed legislation in 1975 to end termination and it was officially repudiated as U.S. policy in 1983.
Richard Oakes, sadly, did not live to see this. After the occupation he continued his passionate activism for Native issues. He was shot in an altercation with a YMCA camp manager and died in September 1972, age 30. The struggle to attain full justice and the redress of grievances of Native American communities against the federal government continues.
In the meantime, Alcatraz itself became a historic site and tourist attraction in the late 1970s. In addition to the remains of the prison, there are permanent exhibits commemorating the Native American occupation. Graffiti and other results of the occupation can still be seen on many parts of the island.