The Alcatraz occupation fueled a new political awakening popularly known as “Red Power.” This pivotal demonstration led to the passage of more than 26 pieces of self-determination legislation and Supreme Court decisions that enhanced the sovereign powers of native nations.
Today, as we celebrate the sacrifice of all indigenous rights movement veterans who risked everything to provide Indian country with greater freedoms, we are reminded that a true democracy is an experiment; it must constantly be tested and reinvented to preserve its most sacred values — truth, liberty, equality and justice. Throughout American history, the power of protest has preserved freedom, and the takeover of Alcatraz Island represents one of the largest and most significant demonstrations for indigenous rights in the 20th century, trying to ensure that these values apply to all.
The Alcatraz takeover began with student-led strikes advocating for the creation of Ethnic Studies departments at San Francisco State College (SFSC) and the University of California at Berkeley. After hundreds of arrests and bloody confrontations with police, the student strikers won, leading to the creation of the first Ethnic Studies programs in the country. In 1969, SFSC hired Akwesasne Mohawk citizen Richard Oakes, and at Berkeley, Fort Hall Shoshone/Bannock citizen LaNada Means also helped establish Native American Studies. Native students from both campuses connected and formed a new organization — Indians of All Tribes.
In October of the group’s first semester in existence, the San Francisco Indian Center, which supported over 40,000 native peoples throughout the Bay Area, was destroyed by fire. The Indian center served as a major hub for job placement, powwows, youth programming, housing, health and wellness assistance, and dozens of other services.
It was a devastating loss for San Francisco residents. Inspired by the strikes, the loss of the Indian Center and Belva Cottier — a SFSC community adviser and Lakota citizen — Oakes and Means organized a takeover of Alcatraz Island that brought students and the indigenous community together to protest what they believed to be unjust federal policies toward native peoples.
The island was an ideal location. For six years it had been sitting vacant since the federal government declared it “surplus property.” As a sacred place for the coastal Ohlone indigenous peoples, the crumbling prison could be a powerful symbol to highlight the failures of federal Indian policy, and the ultimate landmark to educate the public about indigenous rights.
On Nov. 9, 1969, IAT took action. They held a news conference with reporters at Fisherman’s Wharf to document their official claim over Alcatraz Island by way of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. In a speech to the media, Oakes captured world headlines by stating IAT’s intention to purchase the island for $24 in red trade cloth and beads — mimicking the precedent set by Europeans’ purchase of Manhattan Island 300 years earlier for the same price.
Oakes read the IAT Proclamation, positioning Alcatraz as representative of federal failures to honor treaty rights and indigenous sovereignty. It chronicled how many reservation communities lacked electricity or access to fresh water, sanitation, industry and jobs, fertile lands, and education and health care. Abandoned by the federal government like native nations, Alcatraz was isolated from the rest of America and had been touted for being inescapable.
IAT activists boarded the “Monte Cristo,” a Canadian replica ship. Knowing the boat would not land on Alcatraz because the captain feared his boat being impounded, Oakes and four others dove off the boat and swam more than 250 yards through icy waters to the island. Authorities quickly removed the small occupation, but their actions inspired IAT activists to formulate plans to return.
After a second attempt later that evening also failed, IAT returned Nov. 20, 1969, with a coalition of 89 activists, many inspired by Oakes’s news conference.
The resulting takeover captured worldwide media attention, and IAT’s message went global, placing Red Power, the broader movement that IAT was a part of, on an international stage. News stories highlighted injustices in Indian country and challenged the destructive federal policies of termination and relocation. In 1953, Congress began to terminate the federal trust status of more than 109 native nations, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), as early as 1948, had sponsored the removal of 100,000 native peoples from reservations to U.S. cities. Termination ended the federal government’s treaty obligations with certain tribes and its recognition of their sovereignty, opening up their lands to privatization and exploitation. The goal of each policy was forced assimilation and the erosion of indigenous rights.
Red Power activists resisted these policies, as they orchestrated efforts to reclaim stolen land and defend native nationalism through nonviolent civil disobedience. Red Power also inspired cultural pride and harnessed the power of the mass media to urge positive political, social, cultural and economic change throughout Indian country. The IAT activists were committed to nonviolence. Instead of weapons, they carried their children, populating Alcatraz Island with families.
The occupation lasted 19 months. After claiming Alcatraz by right of discovery, IAT demanded title over the island and government resources to construct an Indian center, ecological center, museum and university on the island. They developed a national newsletter, Radio Free Alcatraz, Big Rock School, a health clinic, a security force and a governing council. They restored plumbing and updated several of the island’s facilities, installed generators, incorporated IAT as a state organization, managed food, shelter and safety for hundreds of residents, and hosted more than 10,000 indigenous visitors.
They also worked with lawyers and state politicians to secure the land title to Alcatraz. The secretary of the Department of Interior, which houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs, claimed to lack authority to change the island’s legal title. Instead, the federal government sent the General Services Administration (GSA) for negotiations.
Nixon ordered local authorities to stand down from forcing IAT’s removal. But as the occupation stretched over weeks and then months, the government ordered the electrical power and phone lines cut and halted fresh water shipments. By this time, public support, media attention and financial assistance diminished. “Clearwater,” IAT’s main transportation vessel, sank, and fires ravaged the island, destroying the lighthouse and warden’s house.
On June 11, 1971, the occupation officially ended when an armed force of U.S. Marshals, accompanied by FBI agents, raided the island. One year later, the federal government decided to turn Alcatraz into a national park.
Ultimately, however, the takeover was a success.
Before his killing in 1972, Richard Oakes declared that Alcatraz represented more than an island: that it was an idea. This idea, as well as IAT’s activism, was never confined exclusively to Alcatraz. Between 1970 and 1971, the organization sponsored the Fort Lawton takeover in Seattle and land reclamation efforts throughout Northern California, from the creation of D-Q University to occupations with the Pit River Nation.
These efforts ignited significant political change, inspiring hundreds of indigenous takeovers across the country, including at Chicago’s Wrigley Field and New York’s Ellis Island. An indigenous cultural renaissance emerged through popular literature, art, film and music. On Alcatraz, IAT built an autonomous indigenous community free of government control, a powerful symbol that carried the goals, dreams and objectives of the Red Power movement to a broader audience.
The spirit of the Alcatraz occupation lives on in the next generation of indigenous activism, from the Idle No More movement to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and Native Hawaiian protectors of Mauna Kea mountain. Today, over 1.4 million people visit Alcatraz Island annually, and each visitor learns more about the occupation and indigenous rights through NPS efforts to interpret, promote and preserve the occupation’s history.
Alcatraz remains a powerful monument for indigenous peoples and all Americans, a sacred place that honors the ongoing struggle to preserve indigenous liberty and rights. As an idea, it lies at the heart of modern Indian identity.