November marks 40 years since Native American activists seized the former federal island penitentiary of Alcatraz and used it to raise the national consciousness on issues facing Native communities.
In November of 1969, Richard Oakes led a landing party named “Indians of All Tribes” onto boats and took up residence on Alcatraz. The prison had been closed six years earlier and was considered surplus property by the federal government. Citing treaty language from the 19th Century that indicated the US government’s intent to set aside such properties for Native peoples, the group occupied the island “to focus attention on broken treaties, broken promises and termination of tribal areas,” says Professor Troy Johnson, chairman of the American Indian studies program at California State University. The U.S. 16 years earlier had begun a policy of terminating Indian reservations and relocating the inhabitants to urban areas.
Adam Fortunate Eagle released a public declaration of the group’s intentions. To the amusement of local Bay Area residents and the chagrin of federal authorities, he recounted European exploitation over the centuries, and stated that the Native group claimed Alcatraz by “right of discovery” and that they would pay for the island with $24 worth of goods – equal to the amount paid by the Dutch to acquire Manhattan Island from Native peoples in 1626.
At the height of the occupation, 400 Native Americans were in residence on Alcatraz, receiving regular news coverage and logistical assistance from many quarters. In 1971, authorities peacefully ended the occupation after 19 months by going in when the group was at its smallest. President Nixon ended the U.S. tribal termination policy in June 1970, while they still were on the island. Fortunate Eagle says the occupation was the most significant event in Native American history since the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn: “It brought the Indian issues to the forefront of the public awareness.”