Why A Group Of Native American Activists Laid Claim To Alcatraz Island 50 Years Ago

Nov 29, 2019
Originally published on November 28, 2019 5:03 pm

Thanksgiving marks the 50th anniversary of the Alcatraz take over, when activists claimed the former prison island, citing a treaty that said all unused federal land would return to Native Americans.

If you want to hear more about the Alcatraz occupation, you can find Latino USA's episode about the life and legacy of one of its leaders Richard Oakes: By Right of Discovery, which was produced by Antonia Cereijido and Janice Llamoca.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Fifty years ago, Alcatraz Island briefly became an Indigenous mecca. This Thanksgiving, hundreds will gather on the island to honor this anniversary. Antonia Cereijido of NPR's Latino USA podcast tells the story of the occupation of Alcatraz and its impact.

ANTONIA CEREIJIDO, BYLINE: In the late 1960s, there was a burgeoning Indigenous movement whose goal was to fight for self-determination. Kent Blansett, professor of Native American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says mainstream news organizations were trying to capture what was going on.

KENT BLANSETT: The press was having a field day in the sense of covering what is this new Native movement and trying to figure out what is red power.

CEREIJIDO: Red power worked to bring Indigenous history and issues to the forefront of policy. There was a focus on reclaiming Indigenous land.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD OAKES: We, the Native Americans, reclaim this land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.

CEREIJIDO: This is one of the movement's leaders, Richard Oakes, speaking to KRON4 News in 1969. He was a Mohawk and San Francisco State student. Alcatraz Island, the famous former prison off the shore of San Francisco, had been abandoned for many years, but news got out that there were plans to build a casino in its stead. When the Native activists heard about this, they had an idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Richard, can you describe for me again what it is you hope to build out here on Alcatraz?

R OAKES: Build a nation.

CEREIJIDO: His argument - for centuries, conquerors and settlers stole land from Indigenous tribes and struck up treaties they never intended to follow. Citing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which set aside lands west of the Missouri River for the Sioux and Arapaho tribes, the activists laid claim to the island. And they go in front of news cameras and offered a familiar deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R OAKES: We wish to be fair and reasonable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land and hereby offer the following treaty. We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for $24 and glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.

CEREIJIDO: The offer might have been tongue-in-cheek, but activists had serious plans to move onto Alcatraz. Within a month, they managed to organize a radio station, a ferry system that would take food to the island and even a small school for children who came with their parents. A bill was presented in the House of Representatives in December of 1969 to, quote, "give Alcatraz back to the Indians." But six weeks into the occupation, tragedy struck. Leonard Oakes, Richard Oakes', son was one of the children on the island.

LEONARD OAKES: My older sister, she had fallen, and she hit her head on the corner of a brick slab. It had split her head from one temple to the other.

CEREIJIDO: They moved Yvonne Oakes, Richard Oakes' daughter, off the island and into a hospital in San Francisco. But she didn't make it. Morale on the island started to slip after that. Here's a news report from NBC in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Things have fallen apart in the year they've been here. The buildings seem to be burning down one by one. The garbage is piling up.

CEREIJIDO: The government accused occupiers of stealing and selling copper wiring from the buildings on Alcatraz. Nineteen months after the occupation began, the Coast Guard came in and removed the activists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: What had started as a symbolic invasion in November of 1969 and later turned into a bitter struggle for the small band of Indians who vowed to hold Alcatraz forever was ended here today.

CEREIJIDO: A newspaper reporter interviewed Richard right away about Alcatraz, to which he said what would become his most famous quote - Alcatraz is not an island; it's an idea. Here's indigenous scholar Kent Blansett again.

BLANSETT: Alcatraz is not an island; it's an idea - that what happens on Alcatraz is beyond just the island itself; it's a movement and that this movement will slowly begin to kind of take over America.

CEREIJIDO: The red power movement ended in the late 1970s, but it laid the foundation for future fights in places like Standing Rock in North Dakota and the Amazons in Brazil. And last year, after decades of Indigenous activist organizing, San Francisco recognized October 8 as Indigenous People's Day rather than Columbus Day. Hundreds gathered on Alcatraz to celebrate.

For NPR News, I'm Antonia Cereijido. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.