79 Native Americans boated away from the docks of San Francisco very early on November 20, 1969. The group was comprised of married couples, young children, college students, and others.
Upon arrival at the deserted Alcatraz Penitentiary, the caretaker of the island advised the group that they were trespassing on federal land, he then guided them to the frame building that was once the warden’s residence. The building was converted into a makeshift headquarters for the political movement.
This was the third attempt to take Alcatraz Island and establish squatter’s rights. The first effort happened on November 9th of that year when around 250 native Americans gathered to board boats at Fisherman’s Wharf. The boats failed to arrive, so the plan was postponed. Later that night, 14 of the Indians found a boat and landed successfully on Alcatraz. A determined effort by U.S. Park Service officials chased them down. The group surrendered and left the abandoned prison.
After the third landing, the Coast Guard ran a blockade, surrounding the island to keep more people and supplies from reaching the occupiers. The Indians were given 24 hours to evacuate, however the group stayed put.
“We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government – to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit’s land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian. We do not fear your threat to charge us with crimes on our land. We and all other oppressed peoples would welcome spectacle of proof before the world of your title by genocide. Nevertheless, we seek peace.”
The Indians presented a list of demands, which included the return of the island to American Indian control. They also wanted funding for an Indian university and cultural center. Federal officials snubbed the requests out of hand.
The occupation movement was organized right away after the election of a council. Every occupier had a vote on major decisions.
In December of 1969, spokesman John Trudell presented daily broadcasts to Berkeley radio station KPFA and Los Angeles’ KPFK. The group soon published a broadside. “Indians of All Tribes”. The sheet was distributed nationally.
The occupy Alcatraz movement was able to survive due to the efforts of private businesses and citizens. Among the donors was local longshoreman’s union member Joseph Morris. He leased space on Pier 40 and maintained a supply center for people and supplies which were then ferried to the occupiers. Creedence Clearwater Revival band members donated $15,000 to the movement. Among the other celebrities who supported the Alcatraz occupation, were Jonathan Winters, Dick Gregory, and Marlon Brando.
In order to carefully control governmental response to the occupation, special counsel to President Nixon, Leonard Garment, replaced Park Service authority with that of the General Service Administration. Officials were careful to not offend the general public. Regular Americans felt strong support for the Indians. GSA and Indian leaders met on several occasions to try to iron out differences.
Federal officials were banking on the perennially unpleasant weather conditions of Alcatraz to force the Indians’ hand. Early in December, electrical power was lost and the government disconnected incoming phone lines. The main water supply was leaking, as was the fuel connection.
Soon, the college students returned to school to honor their loans and scholarship grants. Their replacements included non-Indians, hippies, and less idealistic Indians.
Internal power politics further crippled the integrity of the movement. In January, 1970, leader Richard Oakes’ 13-year-old stepdaughter died after a fall to a concrete slab. Oakes then left the island, creating a leadership gap and more power and political struggles.
June of 1970 witnessed a fire that engulfed the old warden’s home, medical area, and inside the lighthouse. The lack of power meant that the foghorn and lights were disabled causing public concern about navigational safety issues. The Coast Guard repair crews were met by occupiers who demanded restoration of the water supply in exchange for permission to repair the lighthouse.
Public opinion turned negative after a crowded harbor tour boat was hit by a steel-tipped arrow. Public and press determined the group was violent. Press reports of assaults on the island further eroded public support.
The deciding blow came in the middle of January, 1971 when two supertanker container ships collided near the Golden Gate Bridge. 800,000 gallons of crude were spilled into the sea. Even though officials said the broken down lighthouse was not to blame, much of the public did point the finger at the occupiers. Most of the occupiers slowly left the island, finally leaving a skeleton group of 15 people.
At last, June 11, 1971, a task force of GSA Special Forces, FBI agents, Federal Marshalls and the Coast Guard raided Alcatraz Island. The handful of remaining occupiers failed to resist and were removed from the island. The occupation had lasted just over 19 months.
Despite the fact that none of the original demands had been granted, Indian leaders considered the occupation as the birth pangs of a reawakening of Native tradition, culture, spirituality, and identity. Each Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day, people of the North American tribes arrive at Alcatraz for Sunrise Ceremonies and commemorations to honor Indigenous Peoples and celebrate the Occupation of Alcatraz.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the ill-fated, first attempt’s leaders claimed Alcatraz as a “discovery”. The Indians ironically offered to purchase Alcatraz for $24 worth of glass beads and a bolt of red cloth.