American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island

The nineteen-month takeover of the former prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay highlighted indigenous claims to tribal land and symbolized the tensions between American Indians and the U.S. government that have continued for generations.

Summary of Event

Eighty-nine American Indians landed on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay during the early, brisk morning hours of November 20, 1969. Calling themselves Indians of All Tribes Indians of All Tribes , the group declared that the island belonged to them by the provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie Fort Laramie, Treaty of (1868) of 1868, which allowed American Indians to claim abandoned federal property that had once been tribal land. The occupation lasted for nineteen months and symbolized American Indian protests against the federal government. Alcatraz occupation (1969-1971)
Native Americans;land rights
[kw]American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island (Nov. 20, 1969-June 11, 1971)
[kw]Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island, American (Nov. 20, 1969-June 11, 1971)
[kw]Alcatraz Island, American Indians Occupy (Nov. 20, 1969-June 11, 1971)
Alcatraz occupation (1969-1971)
Native Americans;land rights
[g]North America;Nov. 20, 1969-June 11, 1971: American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island[10550]
[g]United States;Nov. 20, 1969-June 11, 1971: American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island[10550]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Nov. 20, 1969-June 11, 1971: American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island[10550]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 20, 1969-June 11, 1971: American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island[10550]
[c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 20, 1969-June 11, 1971: American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island[10550]
Findley, Tim
Nordwall, Adam
Oakes, Richard
Robertson, Robert
Trudell, John

Prehistoric tribes regarded Alcatraz Island as a landmark and a refuge for waterfowl. The Spaniards garrisoned the island; later, after the United States acquired California, Alcatraz became a military prison and had American Indians among its inmates. Indeed, after the Modoc War in the 1870’s, two young Modocs were sentenced to Alcatraz rather than hanged. Later, other American Indians, including Paiutes and Chiricahua Apaches, were incarcerated at the prison. In 1933, the army relinquished control to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Thirty years later, Alcatraz closed.

During the turbulent 1960’s, Native Americans joined others who were protesting injustices. American Indians demanded self-determination, better housing, better medical care, more jobs and educational opportunities, and recognition of treaty obligations. Urban Indians were especially angry, because federal relocation policies had promised them employment in large cities once they left their reservations; instead, they found themselves alienated and destitute. Broken promises and delays in attaining these objectives fueled an activism among urban and rural Indian people. The abandoned island became an opportunity to expose and redress their grievances.

On March 9, 1964, five Sioux, dressed in full regalia and led by a descendant of Crazy Horse, had claimed the island under the terms of the 1868 treaty. They occupied the island for only four hours and left it under threat of arrest. This brief encounter became a harbinger of American Indian unrest and foreshadowed a more concentrated, large-scale occupation.

Upset with the loss of their Indian Center, which had been destroyed by fire, and by proposals to sell Alcatraz to commercial developers, young, educated tribe members joined with other American Indians to plan the second occupation. On November 9, 1969, under the leadership of Richard Oakes and Adam Nordwall (also known as Adam Fortunate Eagle), fourteen Native Americans landed on the island and held it for nineteen hours. Before their forced expulsion, the tribe members recounted their grievances and claimed the island on behalf of Indians of All Tribes. They offered to purchase the island for $24 worth of beads and cloth, following the lead of the legend that tells of the early Dutch colonists paying American Indians $24 worth of beads and cloth for Manhattan Island.

On November 20 eighty-nine American Indians from a number of tribes took over the island for a third time. A much more organized and prepared group, they held the island for nineteen months. During their stay, they elected a council that assigned such daily operational duties as security, laundry, cooking, and sanitation to individuals. Instead of dumping waste into San Francisco Bay, which had been the policy in the past, the American Indians devised a type of septic tank to avoid polluting the environment. They established a preschool and day-care center and offered classes in Indian beadwork, leathercraft, and woodworking. A noted tribal artist taught art to the children, while others provided them with music and dance instruction. American history classes, from an American Indian point of view, were also part of the curriculum. Emotional and financial support for their cause grew with the involvement of well-known actors, writers, and others. The population of the island fluctuated, ranging up to about one thousand persons.

One week after the occupation had begun, American Indians expressed unity in a special Thanksgiving Day ceremony on November 27. Several hundred American Indians attended and participated in ceremonies that included pipe-smoking, singing, and dancing—all of which symbolized spiritual renewal.

Two individuals who played prominent roles in publicizing the occupation were Tim Findley and John Trudell. Findley, a non-Indian reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle whose beat was demonstrations and protests, covered all three occupations, served as the media liaison for the tribe members, and generally sympathized with them. His reports garnered widespread support for the American Indians’ demands and may have convinced federal officials to modify their position from insisting that the tribe members should leave the island to agreeing to hold formal negotiations. Trudell, a Lakota, broadcast thirty-minute programs nightly from Alcatraz on Radio Free Alcatraz Radio Free Alcatraz , which was picked up by Berkeley’s KPFA. He often focused his reports on the need for American Indians to establish a cultural and educational center on the island. During the occupation, Trudell’s wife Lou gave birth to a boy, whom they named Wovoka, after the famous prophet and founder of the Ghost Dance religion.

The Indians met with federal negotiators, including Robert Robertson of the National Council on Indian Opportunity, and demanded recognition of their ownership of Alcatraz and establishment of an educational and cultural center for Native American studies. The Indians wanted Alcatraz to become a haven for the instruction of tradition, including spirituality, healing ceremonies, and indigenous customs. Federal negotiators rejected these demands. Their counteroffers included renaming the island after a nearby tribe, providing appropriations to build a park that included a museum and trading post, and building monuments that honored Native Americans. The Indians rejected these proposals, feeling that these offers did not meet their demand for self-determination.

The Indians’ frustration with the government’s refusal to meet their demands, coupled with internal friction among the occupants, weakened their will. The tragic death of one of Oakes’s daughters, who fell down three flights of stairs at Alcatraz, shocked the American Indian community. Overcome by the loss of his daughter and unable to deal with tribal factionalism, a grief-stricken Oakes left the island. Shortages of water, fuel, and food, waning support from non-Indians, and tribe members’ having to leave the island for various reasons further diminished American Indian resolve.


On June 11, 1971, U.S. marshals landed and removed the remaining fifteen American Indians in less than thirty minutes, without incident. Nevertheless, the occupation of Alcatraz had focused attention on tribal grievances, both on and off reservations, and had demonstrated a resurgence of Native American pride and the need for self-determination. Alcatraz occupation (1969-1971)
Native Americans;land rights

Further Reading

  • Fortunate Eagle, Adam (Adam Nordwall). Alcatraz! Alcatraz! The Indian Occupation of 1969-1971. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 1992. A personal account of the occupation by one of the Native American leaders at Alcatraz.
  • ______. Heart of the Rock: The Indian Invasion of Alcatraz. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Written in collaboration with reporter Tim Findley, with a foreword by American Indian activist and writer Vine Deloria, Jr. Fortunate Eagle provides an updated chronicle of the occupation of Alcatraz. Includes many photographs by Vincent Maggiora, Brooks Townes, and Ilka Hartmann.
  • Johnson, Troy R., ed. Alcatraz: Indian Land Forever. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California, 1994. Poetry and political statements written by American Indians during the Alcatraz occupation.
  • _______. We Hold the Rock: The Indian Occupation of Alcatraz, 1969 to 1971. San Francisco: Golden Gate National Parks Association, 1997. A fifty-six-page work on the island’s American Indian protest of 1969-1971 that includes quotations from veterans of the occupation.
  • _______. You Are on Indian Land! Alcatraz Island, 1969-1971. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California, 1995. Contains 152 photographs that depict the varied emotions of the Native American occupants at Alcatraz.
  • Johnson Troy R., Joane Nagel, and Duane Champagne, eds. American Indian Activism: Alcatraz to the Longest Walk. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. Chapters in this comprehensive collection include “American Indian Activism and Transformation: Lessons from Alcatraz,” “Indian Students and Reminiscences of Alcatraz,” and “The Bloody Wake of Alcatraz: Political Repression of the American Indian Movement During the 1970’s.”
  • Mankiller, Wilma, and Michael Wallis. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. 1993. New ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000. A sound overview and evaluation of the occupation. Includes a new afterword by Mankiller.
  • Nagel, Joane, and Troy Johnson, eds. “Alcatraz Revisited: The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Occupation, 1969-1971.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 18, no. 4 (1994): 1-320. Seventeen articles on the Alcatraz occupation, most of which were written by participant protesters.
  • Stubben, Jerry D. Native Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Chapters in this handbook cover issues of American Indian self-determination through political participation. Chapters include “Native American Political Activism” and “Participation in Social Movements and Interest Groups.”

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