Alcatraz 50: Natives reject being 'museum pieces' in proposed park

Indian Country Today is republishing reports from The Associated Press as part of the occupation’s 50th anniversary

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Nov. 20, 1969, dozens of Native Americans took over Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay to demand the federal government recognize long-standing agreements with tribes and turn over the deed to the island.

They arrived under the cover of night and vowed to peacefully protest federal policies that sought to eliminate tribes’ culture and language, and strip them of their land.

The U.S. government had declared Alcatraz, the site of a former maximum-security prison, surplus property several years earlier. Native Americans used an 1868 treaty between the U.S. and the Sioux to stake a claim to the land.

Although the 19-month occupation ended with occupiers being forcibly removed, it served as a watershed moment in Native American activism.

Tribes did not get a museum, school and cultural center on the island like they wanted. But the occupation galvanized activists, raised awareness of social conditions on reservations and spurred a shift in federal policy toward self-determination.

“It created a spark,” said historian Kent Blansett, who has written about Alcatraz. “We have a long way to go in this country before we get to the point of equality for indigenous people.”

The Associated Press is republishing reports from Nov. 21, 1969, to June 13, 1971, as part of its coverage of the occupation’s 50 anniversary.

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SAN FRANCISCO, June 13, 1971. — The government plans to fashion Alcatraz Island, seized from American Indians who held it as a protest symbol for 19 months into a wilderness-type national park, a federal official said Saturday.

“A dozen parks won’t solve the basic issue if why we took Alcatraz in the first place,” said John Trudell, 25, an Indian spokesman. “The government has always lied to us and ripped off our rights.”

Twenty armed U.S. marshals raided the rocky island in San Francisco Bay on Friday and removed the remaining band of 15 Indians, mostly women and children lunching on canned chile beans.

Trudell said there are no Indian plans now to try to retake the island, guarded by 30 marshals. Trudell said the Indians’ first priority is finding homes and food for their women and children.

Interior Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton will announce details of the Alcatraz park plans within a week, said Thomas E. Hannon, regional chief for the General Services Administration.

As a park, it will be opened in a natural and uncluttered state for hiking and picnicking visitors, Hannon said. Then all other structures will be demolished for the park development, he said.

The 21-acre rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay was a federal prison for 29 years. It housed some of the nation’s toughest criminals until the prison was closed in 1963.

Since Friday, 30 marshals have been camping on “The Rock.” A shoreline chain-link fence will be built and radar-equipped Coast Guard boats will patrol to prevent any unauthorized landings, Hannon said.

Morton said here last month there is a “large, ambitious” project for a Golden Gate recreation area on government-owned shores near the Golden Gate Bridge. Alcatraz will be included.

The island park may include some Indian culture attractions. Hannon said. Indian leaders had rejected such an offer a year ago, saying they will no longer be “museum pieces, tourist attractions and politician’s play things.”

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Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the occupation of Alcatraz.

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