Alcatraz Occupation

Time Periods: 20th Century, People’s Movement: 1961 - 1974
Themes: Native American

Indian occupiers moments after their removal from Alcatraz Island on June 11, 1971. Left: Oohosis, Cree from Canada. Right: Peggy Lee Ellenwood, Sioux from Wolf Point, Montana. Image: © Ilka Hartmann.

On November 20, 1969, sometime after 2 a.m., a fleet of wooden sailboats holding 90 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz. For the next 19 months, the group forcibly occupied the island, hoping to reclaim the rock “in the name of all American Indians.”

The occupiers’ list of demands included the return of Alcatraz to the American Indians and sufficient funding to build, maintain and operate an Indian cultural complex and a university. Though the government agreed to negotiate, they rejected all of the demands the occupiers proposed.

The occupiers organized themselves immediately, electing a council and giving everyone a job. Everyone on the island voted on all major decisions. Within three weeks of the occupation, a school was set up. Older adults taught traditional native arts and crafts such as bead and leather work, woodcarving, costume decoration, sculpture, dance and music.

Although federal marshals eventually removed the protesters, and their demands—including title to the island and the construction of a Native American university—were never granted, scholars view the two-year protest as a springboard for modern-day Indian activism. [Description by Bernice Yeung from Alcatraz Is Not an Island website (defunct).]


Photo by Ilka Hartmann.

We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards. By this, we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations in that:

  1. It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
  2. It has no fresh running water.
  3. It has inadequate sanitation facilities.
  4. There are no oil or mineral rights.
  5. There is no industry and so unemployment is very great.
  6. There are no health-care facilities.
  7. The soil is rocky and non-productive, and the land does not support game.
  8. There are no educational facilities.
  9. The population has always exceeded the land base.
  10. The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others.

Further, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.—Indians of All Nations, The Alcatraz Proclamation to the Great White Father and His People

Alcatraz Is Not an Island – Film Excerpt

Among the many people interviewed for the production of Alcatraz is Not an Island are occupation leaders John Trudell, Dr. LaNada Boyer, and Adam Fortunate Eagle, along with several other prominent participants, including Wilma Mankiller, Grace Thorpe, Leonard Garment, and Brad Patterson.  Associate Producer and Historical Consultant Dr. Troy Johnson and Native American author/historian Robert Warrior provide much of the historical commentary in the film. Also included in the documentary is an abundance of historical photos by Michelle Vignes and Ilka Hartmann and archival 16 mm footage

Purchase the DVD for institutional or personal use at Turtle Island Productions.

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