History: Remembering Impact of Alcatraz Occupation on 45-Year Anniversary

AP Photo/American Indians play ball games outside the prison wall on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco during their occupation of the island in this November 26, 1969 photo. The sign reading "INDIANS WELCOME," is one of the few physical reminders that 45 years ago a group of American Indians clung to the barren, bony slopes of Alcatraz for 19 months, winning the attention of the world and igniting a passion for civil rights.

This Date in Native History: “Alcatraz was to put your life on the line, it was a struggle; it was a sacrifice.

We were ridiculed and put down but we didn’t care because we knew we were right,” Lakota Harden, Minnecoujou-Yankton Lakota and HoChunk, told ICTMN in 2009. “We knew what we were doing was powerful. This taught us all not to give up.”

The Occupation of Alcatraz Island began the morning of November 20, 1969, and lasted 19 months. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the start of a wave of American Indian activism that influenced the federal government to end its termination policy and pass the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.

The act gave some government agencies the authority to enter into contracts with and make grants directly to federally recognized Indian tribes, and gave the tribes authority over how they would administer the funds.

“This was the birthplace of everything—after this, everything changed,” Harden, who was 12 at the time of the occupation and in boarding school, said.

AP Photo/Robert W. Klein/This was the caption provided in 1969 for this image: Provisions for Indians on Alcatraz are becoming more plentiful day by day and arrangements to sort and store the foodstuffs are underway in San Francisco, November 27, 1969. What once was the prison mess hall is now being used to store supplies. A special Thanksgiving Day feast was to be provided by well wishing main landers.

Activists declared the island Indian land “by right of discovery” and demanded the federal government turn it into a Native cultural center and university, according to History.com. This never happened, but the occupation did spark national dialogue about Native issues.

“It started a big wave with many ripples that have traveled far,”LaNada War Jack, a leading organizer of the occupation, said. “It started the mindset of changing from Western thinking back to our culture and our traditions.”

War Jack recalled trying to take the island in 1964 under the 1868 Sioux Treaty, “but they weren’t given any serious consideration at that time. So when we took it as students, we were reinforcing the treaty and the federal laws. We wanted our treaties and the laws recognized—and of course justice for our people.”