We Hold the Rock!

Today’s post is written by Joseph Gillette, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

On March 21, 1963, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, often referred to simply as Alcatraz or “the Rock”, closed. High costs, deteriorating physical conditions, and a notorious reputation for brutality all contributed to the decision to close what was generally considered America’s toughest prison.

One year later, a group consisting of five members of the Sioux tribe landed on the island and claimed it as a new American Indian homeland. Under threat of legal action against them, the protesters left, but the incident lit a fire in the minds of other Native Americans and provided a platform for grander designs.

In October 1969, fire destroyed the San Francisco Indian Center, a place frequented by Native Americans in need of employment, health, and legal assistance. In need of a new home, and energized by the wider protest movements of the time, an activist group self-identified as “Indians of All Tribes” declared they would reclaim Alcatraz Island under the terms of an old treaty between the United States government and the Sioux. They argued the treaty allowed native tribes to reclaim unused, abandoned, or surplus federal lands, and that Alcatraz, since its closing, constituted such unused property.

The following month, a small group of protesters led by Richard Oaks, Mohawk and Native American activist, landed on the island. The group was arrested after only a single night there. However, a month later, Indians of All Tribes landed 89 men, women, and children on Alcatraz to begin an occupation of the island that would last a year and a half.

Shortly after their arrival, the group issued a proclamation. Although a partly tongue-in-cheek inventory of historical wrongs visited upon Native Americans, it also provides a succinct inventory of the occupiers aims.

The second issue of the occupier-produced Alcatraz Newsletter reported on the first Indians of All Tribes National Conference, held on December 23, 1969. The conference addressed future plans for Alcatraz, in particular the establishment of a cultural and educational center, and the legal means for taking possession of the island. Likewise, pressing day-to-day needs of the residents were addressed.

A girl, a child, a sister, a song

In early January 1970, tragedy struck. Yvonne Oakes, the stepdaughter of Richard Oakes, now a leader and driving force behind the occupation, fell down a stairwell to her death. Oakes and his family, demoralized by Yvonne’s death, quit the occupation and left the island.

Deadlock

Around the same time, Robert Robertson, Executive Director of the Vice President’s National Council on Indian Opportunity, met with the island’s occupants. With him was Thomas Hannon, Regional Administrator of the General Services Administration.

While options for the future of the island were discussed, it was the opinion of the occupiers that Robertson and Hannon had only one intent: to get the Indians off the island:

An All Indian University and Cultural Complex

In February 1970, Indians of All Tribes produced a planning grant proposal. It describes the occupiers’ mindset, their reasons for taking Alcatraz, and what they hoped to create there. The proposal begins with an expression of anger at the injustices done to native peoples, as well as a determination to achieve their goals peacefully. They saw Alcatraz as “a place of our own”.[1] There, they established the Bay Area Native American Council through which to engage the federal government and convince them to treat the situation there as a priority. Indians of All Tribes would handle the day-to-day needs of the island’s occupants, as well as plan for Alcatraz’s future.

That future included using the island as a focal point for addressing problems native peoples were having nationally, as well as creating an Indian University and Cultural Center. A radio station and newsletter were started to get the word out about events on the island, as well as issues involving Native Americans elsewhere. Alcatraz was to provide native peoples with an opportunity for self-rule, a place where “Indian people have a chance for the first time to say what they have to say and to make decisions about themselves”.[2] While stressing their desire to govern themselves “without interference from non-Indians”, anyone with something to contribute to the island’s success would be welcome.[3] The planned university would provide native peoples the opportunity to receive a college level education without forcing them to jettison their cultural identities at the door. The teaching of tribal languages was emphasized. The study of law is mentioned as necessary to defend native people’s rights. Environmentalism and native religions would also be taught. Throughout the document, the desire for self-rule and self-determination is made clear.

The proposal continues with the necessity of meeting the day-to-day needs of the island’s occupants. Water, food, electricity, heat, furniture, tools, medical and educational supplies, and the means to deal with accumulating garbage are all addressed.

The proposal closes with a list of council members and advisory boards, as well as assorted tasks to be accomplished. One of those was a call to all tribes to come to Alcatraz to plan for the future. Detailed plans would follow, intending to answer one question: “What are we to become? The day is over when non-Indians can answer this question. [W]e and the countless other Indians in this country will decide our future”.[4]

A Maximal Indian Quality

Robert Robertson subsequently put forth the federal government’s counter proposal. The Department of the Interior, in conjunction with Native Americans, would develop a master plan for a park on Alcatraz:

An emphatic NO

A few days later, Indians of All Tribes responded:

Meanwhile, the island’s occupants continued to plan, organize, and work toward the day when, they believed, the island would become theirs. Indians of All Tribes incorporated within two months of coming to the island. Radio equipment was brought in and a nightly radio show broadcast. A number of work committees were established, and an attempt was made to have their home-grown school accredited by the state of California. There were expectations of a planning conference to establish programs related to education, ecology, infrastructure, and the showcasing of tribal cultures. Additionally, there were plans to create a “travelling college to gather information on different tribal cultures and heritages”.[5] Calls went out for economic and political support from those sympathetic to the cause. Moral and material support from average citizens, celebrities, organized labor, and politicians followed.

Couldn’t take any more

Around this time, spring semester began. Many activist college students left to return to school. They were largely replaced by others seemingly more interested in a free place to live and an area away from the watchful eyes of law enforcement. Drugs and alcohol, banned by the original occupiers, became prevalent on the island.

Don Carroll was hired by the General Services Administration as contract caretaker on Alcatraz. He provided testimony in May 1970 concerning what he’d witnessed as caretaker. He immediately noticed the use of marijuana, which continued during his tenure there. He was informed of a shipment of heroin to be delivered in April. Carroll testified to numerous drug-related illnesses and injuries occurring throughout early 1970. Incidents of drug and alcohol related violence increased. Many of the original occupiers left, afraid for their lives and wellbeing. Armed gangs began patrolling the island. Violence was becoming commonplace. Piles of garbage attracted mice and rats. The plumbing was failing. Copper wire was being stripped from the buildings and sold on the mainland for desperately needed funds. Theft was a common occurrence.

Among the original occupiers who left was Maria Lavender, member of the Yurok tribe. She had run the preschool but chose to leave with her family because “there was too much dope being dispensed and she just couldn’t take any more of life on the island”.[6]

Engulfed in flames

In May 1970, the Nixon administration ordered all power to the island cut in the hope of forcing the occupiers out. Fresh water supplied from the mainland was stopped. In June, a fire resulted in the damage or destruction of several buildings.

Still, some occupiers remained, determined despite all tragedy and difficulty to see their dreams for Alcatraz become a reality. They managed to hold on for another year.

A very important symbol

On June 11, 1971, federal marshals arrived on Alcatraz and forcibly removed the remaining holdouts. Shortly thereafter, Indians of All Tribes issued one last proposal, this time to the “Citizens of the United States”:

Although the occupation of Alcatraz failed to achieve its expressed aims, it did have a more far reaching impact than was immediately realized. While the occupation was ongoing, President Nixon declared that the policy of forced tribal assimilation through the withdrawal of tribal sovereignty should end. Indian self-determination, championed by the Alcatraz occupiers, was to be the federal government’s new stated goal. Improvements to healthcare delivery and educational opportunities for Native Americans were forthcoming. The passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 protected the right of Native Americans to practice their traditional religions.

Since 1973, Alcatraz Island has been managed by the National Park Service. Park Service personnel continue to teach the history and significance of the occupation and maintain the island’s material culture. While a far cry from the “Indian University and Cultural Center” initially dreamed of, such stewardship guarantees that this important part of Native American history will not be lost to future generations.


All images in this post are from Council Records, 1968-1974, (NAID 6120300). National Council on Indian Opportunity (U.S.). Record Group 220: Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, 1893 – 2008.


[1] Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz, February 1970, p. 2

[2] Ibid, p. 4

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 13

[5] Indians of All Tribes Newsletter, February 1970, p. 5

[6] Statement of Don Carroll, May 28, 1970

Leave a Reply