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How 400+ Indians Occupied Alcatraz And Changed Richard Nixon’s Mind

Culture | September 26, 2019

Native Americans, one named Tim Williams (a chief of the Klamath River Hurek tribe), approaching Alcatraz Island by boat, late 1969 or early 1970. Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

In 1969, American Indians seized Alcatraz Island, the former federal prison in the San Francisco Bay. The group called themselves the Indians Of All Tribes (IOAT), because they were indigenous people from different tribal groups, and their collective defiance of the U.S. government was the biggest action to date of the pan-Indian Red Power movement. The approach of Native activists was a mixture of '60s civil rights tactics -- sometimes it was MLK-style peaceful civil disobedience, at other times they emulated the militancy of Black Panthers. The occupation of Alcatraz made the Indian cause national news, creating leaders on the island and inspiring Natives across the country who watched the story unfold.

American Indians Had Tried To Occupy Alcatraz Before

During the occupation of Alcatraz. Source: (historyisaweapon.com)

In 1963, Alcatraz closed because it was going to cost millions of dollars to repair the notorious prison and bring it to standard. Rather than investing in the prison, the inmates were relocated to other federal penitentiaries such as Leavenworth, and the land was declared surplus federal land. It did not, however, remain vacant for long.

On March 9, 1964, citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, Richard McKenzie and other members of the Sioux tribe occupied Alcatraz for four hours. According to these Natives' reading of the treaty, abandoned or surplus federal land was to revert to the Sioux. After the brief occupation, five members of the Indians of All Tribes, an intertribal group, led by Richard Oakes (Mohawk), then claimed the island on November 9, 1969. This was also short-lived, with the U.S. Coast Guard removing them that day. Later that same day, a group of 14 stayed overnight on the island, but they left the next day.

The Longer Occupation Begins

Sign at Alcatraz. Source: (dailycal.com),

Based on the overnight stay, the Native activists realized that a longer stay was possible and Oakes recruited college students to join them. Eleven days later, a larger group arrived -- 89 set out for the island that day, but the Coast Guard intervened, and just 14 were able to reach their destination. This group included married couples and six children, including actor Benjamin Bratt and his siblings. They issued the Alcatraz Proclamation which announced their reclamation of Alcatraz. In the Proclamation, they noted the similarities between Alcatraz and reservations, including the inhospitable nature of the land and the statement that “The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others.”

People Quickly Take Notice

Source: (newsmaven.io)

By Thanksgiving Day, the group had been joined by hundreds of others, and in December, John Trudell (Santee Dakota) began radio broadcasts from the island. They began to get national attention and Grace Thorpe (Sac and Fox, daughter of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe) convinced celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda to visit the island. They even had a more reliable boat funded by a $15,000 donation from Creedence Clearwater Revival.

After the occupation began, they created a council and each individual contributed, whether it be in security, housing, cooking, or any other job that needed to be done. Richard Oakes became their leader, and LaNada Means (Shoshonne Bannock) was an important presence as well.

Things Start To Fall Apart

Source: (reddit)

Despite the initial success of the occupation, it quickly lost its leader. In January, 1970, 13-year-old Yvonne Oakes, Richard’s daughter, fell to her death, leading the Oakes family to leave. Others also left, but the arrival of drug addicts led them to ban non-Indians from spending the night on the island. The government then shut off electricity and telephone service, and some of the buildings were destroyed by a fire.

Despite Its Failure, It Did Leave An Impact

Richard Oakes, the main organizer. Source: (mentalfloss)

More of the inhabitants left until finally, on June 11, 1971, the government removed the last 15 people from Alcatraz. They had occupied Alcatraz for 19 months, with their numbers exceeding 400 people at one point. But the activists did not realize their original goal of creating a cultural center for Native Americans. However, the occupation did have an impact, raising national and international attention for the struggles of the Native Americans.

The Occupation Leads To Major Changes

Nixon has a change of heart. Source: (newsmaven.io)

After leaving the island, Richard Oakes continued to be an activist until his murder in September, 1972, and his work helped to lead to the return of some land to Natives. Additionally, the occupation seemed to sway Richard Nixon. Up to that time, the government had been following a famous policy "termination," a rather ominous way of saying assimilation, in which the Natives' tribal identity would be eroded as the tribes were stripped of their special status and sovereignty. But on July 8, 1970, Nixon gave his “self-determination” speech, which announced an end to termination. 1970 also marked the beginning of the restoration of federal recognition for tribes and the start of the passage of important positive laws for Native Americans.

While Richard Nixon is remembered by many Americans as one of the worst presidents of all time, due to the Watergate scandal, many Native activists view him in a positive light for the changes he, along with his pro-Native veep Spiro Agnew, tried to effect.

Nixon tried to do the right thing, although he was in a difficult position in that he couldn't seem to be caving to demands of the occupiers. In 1972, Native activists affiliated with the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized the office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which Nixon saw as a betrayal.

Tags: American Indians | Civil Rights | Native Americans | Richard Nixon | The Civil Rights Movement

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!