Where do Native Americans go when their land is stolen from them? Well, in 1969, Alcatraz.
On October 10th, 1969, the San Francisco Indian Center was destroyed in a fire. The center provided medical and carrier services to the community and it needed to be replaced.
At the time, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary had been closed for six years. A Sioux social worker called Belva Cottier pointed out that according to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, any unused property of the government could be claimed by the Sioux. As such, Alcatraz belonged to the Indigenous people.
Unsurprisingly, the United States government did not see it this way.
When 30 Native Americans, including six children, took boats to Alcatraz on November 20th, 1969, the Coast Guard blockaded them. 14 protesters managed to get through to the island, causing the island’s only guard to send out the unbelievably poorly phrased radio message “Mayday! Mayday! The Indians have landed!”
But land they did, and more continued to land over the course of a 19 month long occupation. The activists set up a medical clinic, a daycare, a school where students were taught indigenous history, and even a radio station. The Coast Guard kept the protestors effectively under siege, but allies circumnavigated the blockade in canoes in order to bring food and supplies to the island.
Over the months, the occupation began to garner more interest. Celebrities like Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda visited the island and offered their public support. The band Creedence Clearwater Revival contributed what would today be about $98, 753 in support of the protestors. All in all, the occupation remains one of the most publicized and un-remembered events in American history.
The demise of the Indian Center at Alcatraz was a slow and insidious one. As non native hippies began to stay on the island, the government became more concerned about the public interest in the occupation and began regularly shutting off the electricity. In May, 1970, the federal government had begun to seek a national park designation for the prison.
By late May, all power and telephone service had been cut to the island. This discouraged many from staying longer on the island, and a fire of unknown origins (I’m not saying the Coast Guard did it, but at the same time I would like an investigation) sent home many of the others.
On June 11, 1971, the final 15 protestors were removed by more than twice as many federal officers. Alcatraz was empty again.
Every year since, on the holiday that we call Thanksgiving, Native Americans return to Alcatraz for a dawn ceremony celebrating the heritage of Indiginous people. Even today, visitors can see graffiti on the walls of the prison reading “Indians welcome, Indian land”.