Alcatraz 50: ‘They lied to us’ says John Trudell

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.— Federal marshals have staged a surprise raid and forcefully removed the last of an Indian occupying force from Alcatraz Island, a former federal prison site that since Nov. 20, 1969, has been a symbol for American Indians.

Twenty men armed with shotguns landed in boats Friday while most of the estimated 75 Indians living on the Francisco Bay island were on the mainland on business.

There was no resistance from the six, four women and five children, and no one was injured. Marshals said they took a four-inch knife from one of the men, who had been using it to cut meat for lunch.

Three Coast Guard cutters evacuated the 15 Indians, who were then taken by the Navy bus to a San Francisco hotel.

U.S. Attorney James L. Browning Jr. said the raid was triggered when a U.S. marshal observed $680 worth of copper wires and cables being removed from the island in the morning and sold in San Francisco. Three Indians were arrested and charged with theft of government property.

Browning, who announced the raid at a news conference, said continued Indian occupation of the island was intolerable and that the Indians has been “illegally inhabiting the island.”

John Trudell, a 25-year-old Sioux who is a member of the Alcatraz tribal council and was ashore when the marshals struck, told a news conference that Browning had promised “there would be no action against us while we were still negotiating. They lied to us.”

The prison, once home of some of America’s toughest criminals, was phased out in 1963. The Indians were negotiating with the General Services Administration, the federal caretaker agency, about the future of the 21-acre rock, a mile off the San Francisco financial district.

A band of 78 Indians form 30 tribes occupied the island Nov. 20, 1969, claiming it by “right of prior discovery” and under and 1868 Sioux treaty that they said called for all unused federal property revert to Indians.

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

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