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Liberating Alcatraz

by Ilka Hartmann, From Fault Lines, Newspaper of the SF Bay Area Independent Media Center, November, 2004 


On November 10, 1969 residents of the San Francisco Bay Area woke up to the headlines "Indians on Alcatraz". In the middle of the night, Indians had chartered a boat to the island and fourteen of them climbed onto The Rock to claim Alcatraz for the Indians. When reading the news in the morning paper, the vast majority of Bay Area residents responded with the expression of the time "Right On! 


There had been the Civil Rights Movement in the South, then the Black Power Movement. The Panthers had been formed in Oakland. The United Farmworkers, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, were organizing in the San Joaquin Valley. At San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement and Peoples Park, there had been "Third World Strikes". Students had demanded and clashed with the police for ethnic studies-Black Study Programs, Chicano-, Asian-American and Native American Studies. 


Now there was Red Power.  


The Indians were the least mentioned in the demonstrations and now they had accomplished a symbolic gesture that sparked everyone's imagination and created enormous support throughout the Bay Area. 


The federal prison on Alcatraz had been closed since 1963. What was going to happen to the unused island in the middle of the Bay? The Board of Supervisors of the City accepted proposals. Adam Nordwall (later Fortunate Eagle), a Bay Area urban Indian leader, made a proposal to one of the supes that the island should be given back to the Native Americans now that the federal government was not using it. There was a Sioux treaty which stated that all federal land no longer used must go back to the Native people from whom it was taken originally. Already in 1964, a group of Sioux Indians went to the island, staked a claim and had their lawyer file papers in court to back up their claim. Nothing happened. And nothing happened with Adam's proposal either. 


By 1969, there was a lively discussion in the papers of the Bay Area about the fate of the island. 


Newspaper readers even sent in coupons to their paper stating their preferences. A Texas millionaire, Lamar Hunt proposed a 21st century space theme-park on the island, a hideous idea which would have transformed Alcatraz to a bizarre commercial piece of real estate. 


Then, the San Francisco Indian Center burned down and the many Indians in the City no longer had a place of their own. They were now without a gathering place where they could meet other Indians, speak their native language, come together for celebrations or practical support. 


And there was Alcatraz Island -unused. 


On November 9,1969 members of the large Bay Area urban Indian population and college students from different universities in the state tried twice to take Alcatraz back. The second time, late in the day, 14 Indians made it. They willingly left the island the next day. But the idea was not dead. 


On November 20, 1969 ninety-two Indians crossed the Bay and landed on the island to hold it for nineteen months. 


What had happened? 


That day, the phone rang in a bar in Sausalito. When the bartender answered it, an Indian man was on the line. He asked, if he, the bartender and some other skippers could take a group of Indians to an undisclosed destination in the Bay? "Is it Alcatraz ?" the bartender queried. "Yes"' the Indian man replied. "Terrific!", said the bartender. "Meet us when the bars close." 


At 1 A.M., Indians started arriving in Sausalito, more and more of them. The police were beginning to notice them, too. Later one of the skippers remarked that he had actually seen people make themselves vanish that night. They dissolved into the Sausalito fog and reappeared at the dock! The three Sausalito skippers, two men and one woman, kept their identity secret to all but a few of the "invaders" for 30 years. 


Then, they came forward with a slim book about the "Sausalito Indian Navy" and participated in the 30th anniversary celebration on Alcatraz. 


Throughout that night of November 20, 1969, Indians were ferried over to the island. The woman skipper actually sailed, in complete darkness. The motor on the boat she had borrowed did not work. 


By morning, there were Indians all over the island, even some kids. They settled in, moved into the Warden's Building, the cells, the kitchen - - and the world took notice. 


That is, the press took notice. Adam Nordwall had good relations with the press. There were Tim Findley, the writer for the Chronicle, Brooks Townes, one of the skippers of the Sausalito Indian Navy who worked as a freelance photographer and the Chronicle photographer Vincent Maggiora and, soon, a group of "underground" photographers and journalists. 


Now the plight of the Native people of this continent was coming out in the papers of the United States, but also in Germany, France, Japan and other parts of the world. "Since 1492 to the present, November 9,1969, the Indian people have been held in bondage. Alcatraz is a release from that bondage..." John Trudell would later say in one of his radio programs on "Radio Free Alcatraz" aired on KPFA. 


On Alcatraz,Indians had a platform. They could speak about the tragedy that had fallen upon their people five centuries ago and which was continuing on the reservations and in the urban ghettoes. "They should have killed us all then, so there wouldn't be any of us left today", John Whitefox, one of the 


fourteen who made it to the Rock on November 9, would later say. 


And this is how it was for Indians in 1969: There was 75% unemployment (reservation and urban Indians combined). The average age of death for men was 40. The suicide rate for Indians was ten times the national average. Alcoholism and crimes committed while drunk were higher than in any other group. There was one Indian with a PhD in the whole country! 


Why were there so many Indians in the Bay Area? Estimates ranged between 10-40,000. They came from everywhere in the United States. As many as a hundred different tribes were represented here, the majority were from outside of California. 


Two US government programs had brought many of the Indians to the Bay Area, in addition to those who had stayed here after World War II.:Relocation and Termination. 


Relocation was a government program which moved Indians from the reservation to the city and trained them in jobs. But once in the city, over 60% grew discouraged and dropped out of the program when no job was forthcoming or, the government dropped the person after he or she had gotten a job. As soon as that job was over, the Indian was alone in the city. Homesick, lonely, unaccustomed to the urban ways, away from family and friends and the natural world, many Indians ended up in the poorest, most dangerous parts of a city, and many eventually found solace in the Indian bars. 


Termination was a government program to end all Indian reservations by helping Indian people assimilate into the mainstream. Eventually they would have no more rights to receive any help from the same government that had made them lose their previous self-sufficiency and their land. 


Not all of the Native Americans whose home now was the Bay Area, had just recently dropped into city life. Some grew up here, were raised in the urban world. Many did not admit they were Native American because of the prevailing prejudice, rather they said they were "Mexican", others married non-Indians and blended into the suburbs. 


After November 20, when the word about the Occupation got out to Indian Country, Indians came from all over- for a visit or to stay on the island. Some moved their family to Alcatraz, others came every weekend with their kids. 


The Indians who stayed on the island called themselves "Indians of All Tribes". Those from reservations learned to get to know members of other tribes, the urban Indians learned what it meant to be an Indian. "It was the first time I ever smoked the pipe", a woman from San Francisco said. Much time was spent around the fire talking, drumming, and singing. The occupiers cooked together, repaired equipment and taught each other Indian dancing and beading. 


They formed a Council which met regularly where they arranged their present daily life and created the vision for the future Indian use of the island. They planned a spiritual center, a university, a restaurant with native food, an ecology center. A school for young children and a health center were set up quickly. Food, clothing and money was donated by the Bay Area community who broke the blockade the Coast Guard tried to keep around the island at first. 


Celebrities lent their support by coming to the island for a day, musicians, actresses had their picture taken with the Indians on Alcatraz. Finally, Native Americans were being listened to and found sympathetic ears among the general population. Ask anyone who lived in the Bay Area 35 years ago and you will most likely be told their memory or even involvement in the support of the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island. 


The first spokesperson to emerge among the Occupiers was Richard Oakes, a Mohawk, who with his wife Annie and their children came to live on the island. He was eloquent and charismatic, a student at SF State, and had first become known to the press when, on November 9, he read the tongue-and cheek yet deeply serious Proclamation written by the urban Indian community. When a terrible event took place on the island- Yvonne Oakes, Annie's and Richard's daughter fell down several stories in an apartment building and later died- the family left the island, never to return. 


La Nada Means (later Boyer), a Shoshone-Bannock, who had been active in the Third World Strike at UC Berkeley became a vocal defender and protector of the Occupiers. She and John Trudell, a Santee Sioux, negotiated with the US government throughout the 19 months of the Occupation. The Indians wanted title to the island. The government drew the negotiations out. From interviews with a former Nixon aide we know today that the US government never intended to give title to the Indians or let them have a university on the island. 


It seemed that the government would let the Indians stay on the island openendedly .Yet, after a while they took away the water barge. The lack of water made life on the island even harsher. Often it was cold and windy. Buildings were crumbling . Living places were hard to keep warm, especially after the electricity was cut off. Getting back and forth to the island was difficult. At times the Indians owned a boat, mostly they didn't, and Occupiers had to hitch rides. 


Eventually the character of the Occupation changed. Many of the students had to leave by the end of January to keep in school, keep their financial aid and to not be drafted for the war in Vietnam. Bye and bye, alcohol and drugs got onto the island. The "Security" team overstepped its power, and some of the people who came were from the rougher world of the streets. The support of the Bay Area community dwindled. There were negative reports in the press about conditions on Alcatraz. Finally, there was a fire. It was unclear who started it. The lighthouse was damaged and the Alcatraz beacon no longer could be seen in the Bay until a private person took on the repair. 


On June 11, 1971, Federal Marshals came to the island and removed fifteen Indians who were there that day. They took the Occupiers to the Senator Hotel in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco and paid for one night. After that everyone was on their own, The Occupation of Alcatraz was over. 


"They lied to us!" John Trudell said. The Indians were negotiating with the government about the title for Alcatraz while the government already had plans to remove them . 


On July 8, 1970, President Richard Nixon ended the policy of Termination and Relocation and began the policy of Self-Determination. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land were returned to their original Native American owners. 


The Occupation of Alcatraz had a life-changing impact on many Indians and also on some of the local journalists and photographers who documented it. Indians had now been freed to be openly proud of their identity. Across the country protests for Indian rights followed, and there were a number of land takeovers,including an army base near Davis where DQU, a Chicano-Indian college was founded. 


Some Indians were inspired to go back home to their reservations and work for their tribe.: Former Occupier Dennis Hastings brought back the Sacred Staff of the Omaha from a museum on the East Coast where it had been for a hundred years. Wilma Mankiller was elected Principle Chief of her people, the Cherokee, in Oklahoma. Ed Castillo became a historian and today directs the Native American Studies Program at Sonoma State University. La Nada Boyer received her PhD in Political Science. Many women left their suburban lives and moved into the now vibrant urban Indian community to contribute their talents . 


"...this is actually a move, not so much to liberate the island, but to liberate ourselves for the sake of cultural survival..." - Richard Oakes 


Sources: Adam Fortunate Eagle, Heart of the Rock. Troy R. Johnson, Editor: Alcatraz, Indian Land Forever 


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