The Return Of The American Indians To The Island
American Indians of many tribes returned to the Island in November 1969. Alcatraz had been dormant for six years since the Bureau of Prisons closed the penitentiary. No one had come forward with a feasible plan for reusing Alcatraz, so American Indian activists seized the Island shortly before Thanksgiving and claimed it as Indian Land. This was an internationally-publicized political protest to focus attention on the plight of American Indians.
Indian unity was a key focus of the Indian movement, and there were plans to establish an American Indian cultural center on Alcatraz. One of the most inspirational occupiers was Richard Oakes, a young Mohawk student described as handsome, charismatic, and a talented orator. The media often sought him out and identified Oakes as the leader, the Chief, or the mayor of Alcatraz. Tragedy struck in early 1970 when his young step-daughter Yvonne was killed in a fall on the Island. Richard Oakes left shortly after and the Occupation began to lose momentum.
PHOTO: Golden Gate NRA, Park Archive & Records Center. Richard Oakes (left) welcomes U.S. Attorney Cecil Poole to Alcatraz.
For eighteen months, American Indians and their families lived on the Island. However, public interest in the occupation waned, and order among those living on the Island began to deteriorate. Federal marshals removed the remaining occupiers from the Island in June 1971.
The Alcatraz Occupation is now recognized as a milestone in American Indian history. Many Indian people now consider the seizure of Alcatraz to have been a new beginning, a reawakening of American Indian culture, traditions, identity and spirituality.
Each year, Indians of all tribes return to Alcatraz Island on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day to hold a Sunrise Ceremony for Indigenous Peoples and to commemorate the Occupation.
For more information on the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz go to https://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/we-hold-the-rock.htm