The Native Occupation of Alcatraz Island and its Effects on the Greater American Indian Movement.
On November 20th, 1969 a group of Indian students, and urban Indians from the Bay Area led by Richard Oakes landed on Alcatraz Island claiming it as "Indian Land" (Johnson). This was a multi-tribal group and so they adopted the name "Indians of All Tribes" (Johnson). The 1969 landing and subsequent 19 month occupation was not the first attempt at an occupation; it was however the last and the longest in a string of 3 attempts (Winton). This Occupation would have a significant effect on the Native American rights movement and also a profound effect on the Country as a whole. The First attempt was made on March 9, 1964. It was led by Sioux Indian, Richard McKenzie, 5 others of his tribe, and accompanied by their lawyer (Eagle). They claimed the land under the Black Hills Treaty of 1868, which stated "And it is further stipulated that any male Indians, over eighteen years of age, of any band or tribe that is or who shall hereafter become a party to this treaty, who now is or shall hereafter become a resident or occupant of any reservation or territory no included in the tract of country designated
which is not mineral land, nor reserved by the United States for any special purposes other than Indian occupation
Shall be entitled to receive from the United States a patent" on the land (Eagle). This meant that if the government didn't want the land the Sioux could have it. And this was the case. A presidential commission had found that no federal agency could find a practical use for the prison (Eagle). This Occupation however lasted only about 4 hours but it was not unsuccessful, the demands and basis for these demands (Black Hills treaty) made by McKenzie would resurface again in the 2 subsequent occupations led by Oakes (Johnson).
On November 9th 1969 Richard Oakes began his occupation with a handful of supporters (Johnson). They soon realized that a full scale occupation would be possible and began recruiting Native peoples to join them, most of which were urban Indians from Californian Universities (Johnson).
Initial support from both the public and the press was one of solidarity and support (Eagle). They were non-violent. They were well-organized into a community council wherein everybody had a role (Johnson). They had clear demands (the deed to the island). They had clear and well thought out claim to the land (Black hills treaty). And they had clear ideas as to how they would make use of the island (Indian university, a cultural center, and a museum) (Eagle). There was little reason in the public's eye as to why the government would be opposed to the Indian ownership of a barren Island with no natural resources.
However the government was opposed to the occupation. The government initially insisted that the Indian people leave the island. They placed an ineffective Coast Guard blockade around the island (Eagle). Eventually, bent by public opinion, the federal government agreed that formal negotiations be held with the Indian council (Johnson). The "negotiations" accomplished little because the government came with a hard stance that left little leeway for true dialogue. The Indians wanted the deed to the island; they wanted to establish an Indian university, a cultural center, and a museum. Government negotiators continually insisted that Oakes and his supporters could have none of their demands and insisted that they vacate the island (Johnson).
The authorities maintained this stalemate at formal talks in an attempt to wait-out the Indian Occupiers (Johnson). This was a tactic that eventually proved effective. By early 1970 the Occupiers began to divide. Open opposition with the leadership of Richard Oakes began. Many of the students who had initially occupied the island along with Oakes began to return to school (Johnson). This stripped Oakes of much of his support. To add to the growing...
Cited: Winton, Ben. Native Peoples Magazine: Fall 1999 Article page #2, "Alcatraz, Indian Land"
Johnson, Troy. The occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian self-determination and the rise of Indian activism. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c1996
Eagle, Adam Fortunate. Heart of the Rock. University of Oklahoma Press, c2002
Deloria, Vine Jr., Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. New York: Delacorte, c1974.
Wittstock, Laura Waterman/ Salinas, Elaine J. A Brief History of the American Indian Movement. http://www.aimovement.org .
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