42 Years Ago Today: The Ill-Fated First Attempt to Take Alcatraz

A group of Native American Indians, part of the Indians of All Tribes Inc., occupying the former prison at Alcatraz Island, stand under graffiti welcoming Indian occupiers to United Indian Property on the dock of Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay, California, November 25, 1969. The occupiers were demanding a visit by Secretary of the Interior to discuss possession of the surplus mid-bay property.

42 Years Ago Today: The Ill-Fated First Attempt to Take Alcatraz

The actual anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz island will come on November 20, but today marks the 42nd anniversary of the first attempt at taking the island that laid the ground work for the actual movement a couple weeks later.

On November 9, 1969 almost 100 Bay Area Indians arrived at Pier 39, ready and willing to take the island, an idea that generated from a couple different areas.

The first came when Adam Fortunate Eagle, Millie Ketcheshawno, Mvskoke, and others drafted a proposal for Alcatraz to be converted into an American Indian center after the Indian Center in San Francisco burned down on October 10, 1969. The proposal was overshadowed by a proposal from Texas millionaire Lamar Hunt to turn the island into a commercial venue, according to an article in Native Peoples Magazine in the Fall of 1999.

With no options left, “we all decided November 9 would be the day we would all go out and just stay until they gave us the island,” Ketcheshawno says in the article.

Meanwhile, Richard Oaks, Mohawk, and student at then San Francisco State College, and other college students were also thinking about taking the island.

Fortunate Eagle and Oaks met at a Halloween party, shared their ideas, and then lead the unsuccessful attempt on November 9 according to Native Peoples Magazine.

Many activists had to be rescued by the Coast Guard after recklessly jumping into the cold water with its heavy current. Some of the college students did not agree with Fortunate Eagle’s ways and began distancing themselves from him and began to plan an invasion their way.

That invasion was the one of November 20, and lasted almost 19 months while drawing the attention of media around the world according to a CNN article from 2009.

“[The Alcatraz occupiers] wanted to focus attention on broken treaties, broken promises and termination of tribal areas,” said Professor Troy Johnson, chairman of the American Indian studies program at California State University, Long Beach, and author of several publications on the occupation in the CNN article.

Forty-two years ago, American Indians were beginning to take a stand that changed history in the Alcatraz occupation, much like the Occupy Wall Street movement is looking to do presently—by bringing attention and criticism to the U.S. government.

Indian Country Today Media Network’s Occupy Wall Street coverage: