Alcatraz 50: When occupants declared 'Indian Day'

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 FRANCISO, Nov. 30. — Indians occupying Alcatraz Island barred palefaces Sunday, declared an “Indian Day” of relaxation and welcomed braves and tribal members from across the nation to their swelling population.

The Indians laid claim to Alcatraz 10 days ago under an 1868 treaty that returned unused federal land to the Sioux. They plan to turn the abandoned federal prison into a native American cultural center.

“This is strictly an Indian day,” declared Ross Harden, 30, a Winnebago Indian from Nebraska and student at San Francisco State College, as his companions stopped all non-Indians, including newsmen, at a docking area.

That left four caretakers as the only white men on the island, said Harden: “We want to give everybody a chance to relax instead of having to hassle with the press.”

Bill O’Neal, 21, a Urok Tribesman from Eureka, Calif., said 350 Indians stayed on the island Saturday night, but others put the figure at more than 600.

New arrivals included Indian men and women from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Alaska, New York and towns around California area.

The included a plumber and an electrician, who began an inspection of the island’s plumbing and electrical system. An electrical generator was hooked up, Harden said.

Earlier Saturday, the Army Corps. of Engineers pumped 150,000 gallons of fresh water from a barge onto the island, which has no fresh water supply of its own.

Richard Oakes, a 27-year-old Mohawk and chief spokesman for the Indians, called the water delivery “another battle we have won.” But the Army termed it routine.

A call for a “Great Powwow” brought many of the new Indians to the island for a six-hour celebration Saturday night. Harden said there was lots of singing, dancing and eating.

The Indians want an audience with Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, who is in a Washington hospital with a pinched nerve in his neck. He has said he will talk with the Indians but not on prearranged terms. 

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

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