In the period 20 November 1969, through 10 June 1971, a group of Native Americans took possession of Alcatraz Island and held it as Indian Land. This “Occupation of the Island of Alcatraz” was initiated and led by a group of Native Americans that called themselves the “Indians of All Tribes”, or IAT.
This Alcatraz occupation lasted in total 14 months and came to an end when the occupying Indians were removed with force by the US government. The IAT group was claiming the island while they were citing the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty between Sioux and the US government.
The treaty included the return of all abandoned, retired, or out-of-use lands in federal possession to Native peoples. Upon the closing of the Alcatraz penitentiary institution in 1963, the federal government had declared Alcatraz the island as retired (or surplus) federal property. So activists of the Red Power movement reclaimed the island. On 9 March 1964, a group of Sioux, including Richard McKenzie, occupied Alcatraz Island for the duration of four hours.
On 9 November 1969, a group of Native American activists returned to the island. That day, a boat carrying Jerry Hatch, Joe Bill (Eskimo), Jim Vaughn (Cherokee), Ross Harden (Ho-Chunk) and Richard Oakes (Mohawk) set out for Alcatraz island. When the boat came close, the men jumped into the water to swim ashore and claim the island through their right of discovery. The Coast Guard came in quickly to remove the activists.
Later that same day, a much larger group went to Alcatraz the island and 14 of them stayed overnight. Then on the following day, also this the group claimed Alcatraz island by right of discovery, but later, they left Alcatraz.
Later that year, on 20 November, a group of American Indians landed on the island again despite the fact that the US Coast Guard tried to form a blockade. The group consisted of 79 persons and included Indians, students, and married couples with, in total, six children (including actor Benjamin Bratt with his siblings.
To make their action cleat to the entire world, the activists issued the so-called “Alcatraz Proclamation”. As the main reason for the occupation, the occupiers gave the treatment of Native Americans because of the “Indian Termination Policy”. The group also accused the federal government of breaking a great number of Indian treaties. The IAT (Indians of All Tribes) organization said that they took over Alcatraz island to build a Native American Study Center, an American Indian Museum, a spiritual center, and an ecology center. See also this post about the Richard Oakes Multicultural Center (ROMC).
Richard Oakes then had a message sent to the Mayor of San Francisco and the City’s Department of the Interior with the following words:
“We are inviting the United States government to acknowledge our claim’s justice. The choice is now lying with the American government’s leaders – to be using violence against us as before and for removing us from the land of our Great Spirit, or to institute real changes in the way the government deals with American Indians. We are not filled with fear because of your threat to be charging us with criminal behavior on our land. We, and with us all other oppressed peoples, would appreciate spectacles of proof to the world of your title and claim by genocide. We, nevertheless, seek peace.”
Leonard Garment (Special Council of President Nixon) took over the negotiations. Then, on Thanksgiving, thousands of supporters set out for Alcatraz Island to take part in the celebration of the peaceful occupation. In December 1969, John Trudell started with daily broadcasts from Alcatraz and in that following January, the activists even started to publish a newsletter.
The “Occupation of Alcatraz Island” brought the plight of Native American peoples to international attention and sparked over 200 recorded civil disobedience issues among Native Americans. Now there are quite a few people who refer to the occupation as the actual “cradle of the current civil rights movement for Native Americans.” Check out also this article about how the Cesar Chavez Student Center supports youth.