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

By | September 26, 2019

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Native Americans, one named Tim Williams (a chief of the Klamath River Hurek tribe), approaching Alcatraz Island by boat, late 1969 or early 1970. Source: (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

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During the occupation of Alcatraz. Source: (

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.